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Budget Cuts+Teacher Layoffs=Larger Class Sizes

By Amanda Litvinov

In communities across the country, teachers are returning to classrooms with noticeably less elbow room. State and district level budget cuts that led to teacher layoffs have resulted in larger class sizes for some, including Melissa Hagen of Phoenix. Last year her junior high science classes ranged from 22 to 30 students per class, but after losing two colleagues, the count shot up to 38 to 41 per class. “That assumes that all teachers are here or we have a sub,” says Hagen. “If not, I could have around 55 kids in my class.”

Hagen won’t be the only one struggling to keep her packed classes focused on the scientific method this year. A recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators showed that for 2009-10, 44 percent of districts expected to increase class sizes, which is three times the number who said the same thing about the previous school year.

Some states and districts are still finalizing budgets, figuring out where stimulus (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds might fit into the equation, and determining whether additional educators could be reinstated or added.

In the meantime, we asked our members what the trend will mean where they teach; those we heard from had plenty of concerns about the effects that more pupils per class will have throughout the year.

“How am I supposed to teach art to 80 kids on a $200 budget?” asks Gina Marie Warswick of El Paso, TX. Class sizes have increased while her budget has been cut to a fraction of the $1,200 she used to have, explains the Desert View Middle School art teacher. “Even the most basic projects will cost more than $2.50 [per child] in supplies, and obviously I can’t have them complete only one assignment for the year.”

What about the Texas state lottery money that was supposed to support education? Warswick would like to know. And when will stimulus funds make their way to her school?

Stimulus funds for education were nowhere near enough to offset the budget crisis in California. In late July, the Associated Press reported that class sizes in Los Angeles are expected to grow by two children per class in grades 4 through 12, with middle school classes averaging 35 kids and high school junior and senior classes averaging 43 students.

“My 7th grade English classes are going from 28 to 38 or 40,” says teacher Carrie Jacobson, of L.A.’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Middle School. “Last year I felt blessed with 25 to 33 students [per class], but we’re back up to 36 to 40 in core classes, even larger for electives and physical education.”

Things aren’t much better 300 miles up the coast in Oakland. “My biggest concern as a P.E. teacher is safety,” says Elissa Hemauer, who teaches at Antioch High School. She will have anywhere from 40 to 60 kids per class, and should it rain, she will have more than 100 students in the gym for 90 minutes. “If classes were smaller the students would have more opportunity to move and be active,” says Hemauer. “No wonder students are obese.”

NEA takes a strong stand on the importance of keeping class sizes small, and is lobbying for a federal mandate on class size reduction to be included in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as NCLB.

Nowhere is the benefit of smaller class sizes felt more profoundly than in the lower grades. Student test scores indicate that small class sizes help close the achievement gap in grades K-3 by up to 38 percent. Students who have small classes for at least three of those formative years continue to benefit throughout their academic years and later in life, with higher graduation rates leading to higher salary earning potential. That means the rest of us benefit, too: One cost-benefit estimate indicates a $2 return on every $1 spent when class sizes are reduced from 22 to 15 in grades K-3.

The evidence that smaller class sizes increase student achievement, particularly for African-American and low-income students, is irrefutable, says NEA research analyst Kathy Tuck. “Yet, mounting budget deficits and other demands on school resources are making it all but impossible for school districts to continue with class size reductions programs,” she says. “The momentum that we’ve seen over the past few years in state laws on class size reduction is clearly weakening and, unfortunately, the students that need our help the most are the ones that are being hurt the most by increasing class sizes.”

“I have students who are profoundly disadvantaged in my classes,” says Warswick from El Paso, “and I have little to give them other than construction paper I begged off my fellow colleagues. I worry about how effective I can be without supplies or a chance to teach my subject to the fullest.”


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