Journal Issue: Financing Schools Volume 7 Number 3 Winter 1997
The national data reviewed in this article document several important points about the utilization of professional staff in education: (1) mean class sizes have been declining over time and appear to be at an all-time low, yet class sizes are still significantly above levels regarded as "ideal"; (2) mean class size measures can mask considerable variability in actual class size, and it appears that many children are still being taught in classes with more than 30 students; and (3) student-teacher ratios, which are generally below class size ratios, are also at all-time lows. What the data do not reveal, however, are the resource implications implicit in specific policy decisions regarding class size and class size reductions. Some key issues are reviewed below.
Together, teaching staff and facilities make up at least 70% of the resources that are typically spent on schools, so decisions about class size can have a big impact on how resources are allocated.19 If a school board decides to decrease class size, it could do so without adding to its budget by increasing spending on regular classroom teachers and classrooms and decreasing spending on other aspects of education such as specialized teachers and facilities. A school district with many specialized teachers and facilities, for example, could use the funds designated for special education or for at-risk children to serve those children in reduced-size regular classroom settings rather than on special classes.13 Many class size reduction efforts, however, have kept spending on the other aspects of education relatively constant and, thus, require significant additional resources. Because, as noted above, instructional costs make up the majority of school budgets, a school with one teacher for every 30 students would have to nearly double its budget to have one teacher for every 15 students (which is the number recommended by the National Education Association).20
Specific requirements of class size reduction initiatives, such as maximum allowable class size and facilities requirements, can affect both the costs of reducing class size and the educational environment reflected in class size statistics. For example, the maximum allowable class size requirement of 20 pupils per class included in the recent California class size reduction initiative will result in an average class size below 20 among participating schools in the state and will substantially reduce the variability in class size and the prevalence of large classes in the state. California's space requirement that each class be in a self-contained space or in a "space that provides the same average square footage per pupil enrolled in the same grade levels at the school site" as in 1995–96 (before the class size reduction program began)21 means that schools may not simply add teachers to existing classrooms and declare that class sizes have been reduced. Because of the space requirement in California, recent reductions in class size have meant that 1,400 computer labs, music rooms, and child care facilities permanently lost their space, even though the state's class size reduction program added funding to the educational system.22
In Virginia, legislation passed in 1995 set up an initiative program for grades K–3 which provided schools with extra funding if they reduced both pupil-teacher ratios and maximum class size for poor children.23 Most states other than California which have enacted legislation to reduce staffing ratios have done so by focusing on pupil-teacher ratios without maximum class size or facilities requirements.24 These differences in strategy will have direct implications for the route schools take to implement class size policy as well as the associated costs and benefits of the changes. Reducing class size can be accomplished without providing new facilities by dividing existing classrooms, and pupil-teacher ratios can be reduced by adding teachers anywhere in the school system—no additional facilities or even separate classrooms are required.
Whether the benefits from current efforts to reduce class size in the elementary grades will justify their considerable cost is an empirical question that cannot yet be answered. Results of this major educational reform may depend as much on the way teaching staff and students are organized as on the validity of the science behind the push for smaller classes. Current national data on overall pupil-teacher ratios or average class size provide only limited information about the actual size of the classes experienced by young children during the very early school years. Attention will need to be paid to both the educational and cost implications of actual class size, staffing ratios, and space requirements before it will be possible to determine if the current push to reduce class size is working and worth the cost.