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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Class Size

By Lyle Hillyard
Utah State Senator, District 25

I appreciate all the responses to my recent blog on Dollars and Accountability but let me add something for Daniel,Tom, Marie, and Anonymous who emphasized the need for smaller class sizes.

Several years ago when Rep. Kevin Garn and I co-chaired the Educational Strategic Planning Commission, we were told by education leaders that if we were to fund $30.0 M of on-going money into class size reduction that it would really impact the class sizes for K-3rd Grade. I remember being told that for that sum, they would guarantee that there would be no Kindergarten of more that 18 students and that would carry over into most grades up to 3rd. We worked hard that next session to secure that funding for such a worthy goal.

When I followed up in the fall, I was surprised to find no difference in class sizes. In fact, I remember one teacher almost calling me a liar for taking some credit for class size reduction when nothing had happened at her school. She surmised that the funding had not occurred.

To my chagrin, I heard comments like:
  • "We don't have rooms at our schools to put the extra classes."
  • "We don't have teachers to hire."
  • "Teachers during the negotiations said that if we gave the extra money to them in the form of salary increases, they would take the extra students."
This has caused me to wonder if class size reduction is really a priority with the local districts or just a slogan to make the public clamor for more education funding.

We also must be careful that we don't unfairly penalize districts who have made tough decision to reduce class size by cutting money elsewhere (transportation, salaries, etc.). We need to encourage good proactive behavior.

Class size reduction will come up again this year. Those of you with expertise in this area - please help me with suggestions on how to make sure that any new funding really makes a difference and is not lost, as our efforts a few years ago seemed to be.


Anonymous Marie said...

"This has caused me to wonder if class size reduction is really a priority with the local districts or just a slogan to make the public clamor for more education funding."

My cynical view is exactly this. The district I am in is badmouthing charter schools every chance they get, crying that the charter schools get special priviliges that they are not entitlted to, and therefore the charters can afford things that the local schools can't. I think it's a stunt to drum up sympathy. Like Sen. Hillyard mentions, the money is siphoned into something else (administrative raises?) and then the cry is "more, we need more, and it's for our *children*!"

It's like a drug addict who goes home begging mom and dad for some grocery money, and sympathetic parents hand over some cash for the honorable need of the child. However, the money is spent on drugs, and the addict continues to beg... It's that kind of mentality my cynical view senses is going on with the districts. Again, how can the charter schools do it but my local school (who my children are attending) can't?

Sen. Hillyard, are vouchers the answer? Is breaking up the districts the answer? If you give the drug addict the groceries directly, will it resolve this problem? Or do you stop giving anything until the addict gets himself clean and demonstrates a true desire to stay that way? Can there be funding that will be given *after* the schools demonstrate their committment to class-size reduction?

My cynical perspective of the Legislature also sees that most of the bills going through either directly or inadvertantly punish those who are already doing the right thing. Like you write: "We also must be careful that we don't unfairly penalize districts who have made tough decision to reduce class size by cutting money elsewhere (transportation, salaries, etc.). We need to encourage good proactive behavior." It's pretty talk, but I don't see this happening. But I guess I'd better stop with the cynicism.

10/09/2006 11:17 AM  
Anonymous tinytim said...

The individual schools don't set class sizes. The districts do. Each school is given a certain amount of full-time equivalent positions they can have depending on a class size formula put out by the districts.

I'm not sure where one told a person that $30 million would make THE difference in class sizes. I'm not sure where the person got that. Indeed, in some schools, there would NOT be room for smaller classes. Nonetheless, I do think earmarked NONTAX money could help out somewhat. For example, the reading specialist we have had at our school the past two or three years has helped out immensely.

One of the complaints I do hear by parents is the class sizes (being a teacher where I live, I get both sides of the coin). It is interesting that some alternative schools do get the perks that we as neighborhood schools have been wanting for a long time (such as the class size issue). Maybe, what needs to happen is that we need to reduce the amount of state and federal government influence and get things down on a more community level. I think it can be done too without causing redundancy in having multiple districts and such. Let schools have and communities have more say in their own decisions.

Actually, what REALLY needs to happen is that we've got to stop the political posturing and such. I get tired of special interest groups (especially those with an agenda against education) being among the most influential in education policy. Again, we need to get down to the community level. Even more, we need to change our attitudes and work together--developing significant business/school partnerships, having schools become more community involved, utilizing community resources, encouraging more volunteers, promoting more interaction between teachers and parents, emphasizing teacher, parent, and individual responsibility instead of blaming just one entity, looking for positive news and looking for ways to deal with the not so positive, and so on and so on.

I can understand some politico's disregard for teachers. But it is not all of us, actually not even most of us. I know a great many teachers who DO care and who DO put forth a lot of effort into what they do.

I take what I get in the classroom and I love every minute of it. Every year I see many miracles happen and meet many wonderful people (parents and children).

What we REALLY need now is more effort from people and less blame, more positive efforts and less looking for the negative, a change in attitude and less complaining, an investment of time not just money. We need to ALL work together and not apart.

10/09/2006 4:47 PM  
Anonymous Marie said...

tinytim: I agree with you on the investment in time. With your experience, can you see when a family is invested in a child's education (timewise) vs. when it is not their priority and the responsibility is shirked to the schools?

10/10/2006 8:13 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Thank you for your interest in and commitment to education.

However, I think you're asking the wrong question.

In Utah we espouse the notion of local control. (Except, it seems, when we disagree with our local leaders.) It is difficult to strike the appropriate balance between saying, "Implement this proven program!" and allowing districts to do something which may be even better for their particular locale.

With this in mind, the question should be something like this: "Educators have told me time and again that class sizes are an important issue to them. Since we provided extra money and class sizes did not seem to be reduced, that money must [I'm taking a leap of faith here] have been spent on something more important than class sizes. What was it?"

Possible answers:
- Hiring more experienced [read: hopefully more effective] teachers.
- Hiring aides and specialists for low-performing sub-groups so the schools doesn't fail AYP/U-PASS.
- Health insurance cost increases.
- Salary increases. (To retain veteran teachers, and attract new ones.)
- Library books, classroom sets of reading materials, or other essential supplies.

Yes, I suspect schools with the biggest classes are also out of space to put new classes. In the current economy it's already incredibly difficult to find new teachers for existing classes, let alone for new ones. Even this late in the year there are still classes without a permanent teacher.

At the secondary level, I would argue that it's not class size, but total student load that is the trouble. Yet, we still have teachers buying back their prep periods despite the potential loss of individualized attention. You suggested that teachers in collective bargaining agreements are perhaps making choices that favor teachers, not students. Are these decisions being made too close to the classroom, instead of at the school or district level? Perhaps. It's one of the consequences of control being too localized. (Are periods bought back by starting [lower-paid] teachers at the same rate as they're bought back by experienced [higher-paid] teachers? An answer to this question would be enlightening.)

More to your point, is that during the past several years we've seen an increase in the number of students arriving unprepared for kindergarten, often due to language or parents' education level. Some districts are (appropriately) spending more resources on these kids, instead of providing smaller classes for everyone else. This is one of the positive effects of NCLB.

It's not that funding was "lost" or "didn't make a difference." I don't believe that to be true. Simply, the benefits came in places you did not intend, because the needs of districts are different.

10/10/2006 10:33 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Sen. Hillyard --

"Those of you with expertise in this area - please help me with suggestions on how to make sure that any new funding really makes a difference and is not lost, as our efforts a few years ago seemed to be."

I will be the first to admit, I am not the person who has that expertise. My observations on what the school system needs here in Utah are based on my experiences as a parent, while comnparing what we see here with other school districts where we have lived.

I would turn around the question to you. When the legislature appropriates money for our schools, what mechanisms does it have to ensure that the money is spent on the itmes for which it was allocated? If you give money to schools to reduce class sizes, is there any mechanism to guarantee it only gets spent on appropriate activities (e.g. hiring additional teachers)? Is there any penalty you can levy if this does not occur (e.g. lower appropriation next time)?

I am used to the mechanisms in place in higher education when we deal with a grant from the federal government. If we get money, we must make reports and show progress, or else we don't get the next year's appropriation and we don't get future grants.

I would suggest similar mechanisms -- ask districts to submit proposals where they identify particular schools with adequate classroom space where they could hire additional teachers to reduce class sizes. Give some seed money to reduce class sizes in those districts for those schools, and expect a report back on which teachers were hired with the money and how many students are in each class in that school. If you see success, use this as feedback for funding future proposals from those districts. If they fail to use the money appropriately, cut them off.

Where districts lack the space, ask them to fund bonds to build or expand schools first, then they can return for funding to reduce class sizes. This will ensure that the funding goes to districts where the citizens are serious about education, because they will have voted on the bonds.

10/10/2006 11:51 AM  
Anonymous Marie said...

"This will ensure that the funding goes to districts where the citizens are serious about education, because they will have voted on the bonds."

Tom, I don't think that you can say that those who don't vote for bonds are serious about education, nor can you say that people who vote for bonds are not serious about education. It is silly. I know of people who home school their children, all expenses paid out of their own pocket, and they don't feel inclined to increase their property taxes so as to pay for my children's new school building. Now, I have my own arguements for them, but serious and dedicated parents who are very much involved with education, and even passionate about education are not always supportive of bonds. I am not sure if this was your meaning, but it is written so as to be taken with this implication. I just thought it should be clarified.

One other thing, many of us look for answers in our own experience. But those of us in central Utah have a very different experience than rural Utah. The rural communities may simply be unable to cut the transportation costs with students scattered miles apart, while those in metro areas might have that opportunity. We can't give blanket answers, and I think that's why the local control is being discussed. The needs of each community are different, even though we are all within the same borders of this State.

10/10/2006 12:48 PM  
Anonymous Deb said...

The recent K-3 reading initiative is the perfect example of how a program can be put together in such a way as to meet a state goal and honor local needs. A state framework was put into place that allowed districts to apply for the money within the parameters required by that framework. Local districts created plans that included everything from purchasing of materials or tests, hiring of literacy specialists, professional development to whole day kindergarten. Each district also set their goals for what they wanted to achieve. The result has been unanimous support from all levels -- state, district, school and teacher. Of greatest importance is the increase we are seeing in student achievement in literacy. This is a model also lauded by WestEd and one that can be replicated as we look to other things we want to accoplish for the good of our students in Utah.

10/11/2006 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article from the Washington Post on how to best invest education dollars at, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/10/AR2006101001245.html

10/12/2006 9:15 AM  
Blogger Patty Murphy said...

In FY06, the per pupil appropriation per K-8 student (in ADM) was $200. This year, FY07, the amount increased to $204. Good news, right? The increase in the number of students was 3.8% with about 12,000 additional K-8 students expected this year statewide. The increase in funds was 6% which should cover the cost of the increased enrollment plus inflation for the current fiscal year.

Why then, are class sizes in Utah increasing rather than decreasing? A lack of funds! An example: In year one, lets assume concerned legislators provided $70 million to reduce class sizes. Statewide, that’s an additional 1,100 teachers for one year, or about 3 teachers per elementary school. In year 2, the original $70 million (plus a COLA) is needed to retain those three teachers per school, plus an additional $74 million is needed to impact class sizes to the same extent again (including enrollment growth), for a total of $148 million! That hasn’t happened. Class Size funds increased to $74 million this year only. In essence, increases to cover enrollment growth and inflation will keep the per pupil funds constant in real terms, and retain the prior year’s class sizes, but not improve them.

To reduce class sizes, more funds are needed. This year’s income tax cut could have provided hundreds of additional teachers to Utah’s schools, and improved the salary level. Instead, Utahns will get $48 back. This is why Utah continues to rank 51st in per pupil expenditures, and number one in class sizes.

10/13/2006 6:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

I think you are right about something here. Simply increasing funding will not reduce the number of students to teachers.

The high "student-teacher" ratio has been an extremely effective selling point by schools seeking increased funds. If I were a school bureaucrat, I would not want to spend the money received by complaining about the student-teacher ratio on hiring more teachers. Doing so, would decrease my effective argument. I would spend the money on facilities and administration. That way I could use the effective high student-teacher ratio argument the next year in my shrill pitch for more money.

Neither would I spend the money received complaining about low teacher pay on teacher salaries. I get more money the lower the teacher pay. I wouldn't want to spoil that metrics either.

It seems to me that the primary goal of the school bureaucracy is simply to grow the bureaucracy. Teaching, and the welfare of the students is secondary to the standard school bureaucrat.

I was just looking at the Utah Fact Book (pdf See page 13). 14 of the top 40 employers in the state are schools and school districts. 20 of the 40 top employers are state owned. The primary customer of many of the other top firms is the government.

The on going complaint of the public sector is that the public sector is not large enough. Come on! the public sector dominates every facit of life in this state.

In the last several years, I've been taking a detailed look at the infrastructure of Utah Towns. We hear an on going monologue from schools about how their infrastructure is not sufficient. If you actually compared the infrastructure of our public and private sectors, you will find that it is the private sector has been dwindling in comparison to the school districts.

The small business sector in most Utah towns is so weighed down with tax burdens that they can't afford to fix their property. Even worse, property improvements often dramatically increase the tax burden.

Yes, the big box industry is booming. These big stores work because they minimize the ratio of retail space to investment costs.

Go into most small Utah towns. You will generally see that the private sector is dwindling, while the public sector buildings are blossoming in size.

10/24/2006 2:40 PM  

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