Tri-City school officials wonder how they’ll pay for the necessary teachers and classrooms now that a statewide measure to reduce class sizes is close to becoming a reality.
Initiative 1351 is passing by more than 31,000 votes, though election workers still have more than 47,000 ballots to process as of the morning of Nov. 14. The measure is passing by a large enough margin that a recount will not be required, election officials told The Associated Press.
While an admirable goal, smaller classrooms present serious logistical challenges, such as a shortage of qualified teachers paired with a lack of space to put them in schools, district administrators said before the Nov. 4 election.
“Right now we’re bulging at the seams as it is,” said Pasco Assistant Superintendent Glenda Cloud.
But the initiative’s supporters say the measure’s passage means more individual attention for students and smaller workloads for teachers. That’s good for everyone, said teacher Denise Hogg, a 34-year veteran of the Kennewick School District.
“We have 28 to 30 kindergartners in a class and that’s not OK,” Hogg said. “Lowering class sizes means you can do more.”
There currently is no statewide mandate for how many students can be in a given classroom. The state does take average class sizes into account in calculating how much money to provide districts and there are rules set up to reduce class sizes in high-poverty schools. Generally, however, it’s up to individual school districts to determine how many students should be assigned to an individual teacher.
The initiative’s supporters, which include the Washington Education Association teachers union and state Superintendent Randy Dorn, have said the state hasn’t moved quickly enough on supporting better teacher-to-student ratios. If approved, it would force the state to provide money to hire more teachers and get around to smaller classrooms.
All grade levels are affected by the initiative, but the biggest impact would be in K-3 classrooms, which would drop to an average of 17 students, down from the current 25 students. Classrooms would have to be even smaller in high-poverty schools.
Smaller class sizes do make a difference for students, Hogg told the Herald, particularly those who are English-language learners or live in poverty.
Hogg teaches English-language learners but formerly taught kindergarten. There’s a lot of ground to cover with young students and that’s very difficult in large classes, she said.
“They don’t know how to line up, they can have a hard time eating a cookie,” she said of kindergartners. “I want them well-educated by 12th grade.”
Finding the space and the money to implement the initiative will be a challenge, said Greg Olson, president of the Pasco Association of Educators teachers union. It will require close cooperation between districts and teachers unions to make it work, but it is possible and necessary to get class sizes down.
“I was a (physical education) teacher and my class was 36, 37 students; and it was hard to do things,” Olson said.
Class sizes in the Tri-Cities vary from school to school and grade to grade. There are 21 kindergartners in a classroom but 30 students in each second-grade class at one west Kennewick school. Richland elementary classrooms range in size from as few as 22 students to as many as 32 and the same goes for many Pasco elementary schools.
Teachers burdened with more students do receive extra compensation, as each district’s teachers contract sets thresholds for classroom size. They get extra pay each day for every student in their classroom over those limits. The Kennewick School District paid teachers an additional $1.4 million last school year because they had class sizes above the levels written into their contract.
Some research shows reducing student-to-teacher ratios has a minimal effect on students while other measures, such as better training for teachers, has more lasting effects, Cloud said.
“It’s kind of elevating one element (of education),” she said.
Even administrators who see a benefit to smaller classrooms said they have nowhere to put the additional teachers, and the state doesn’t have enough teachers to satisfy the initiative’s class-size limits.
Kennewick schools would need 42 more classrooms to accommodate the additional teachers necessary to satisfy the initiative, Superintendent Dave Bond said. That’s equivalent to two schools that would cost $40 million to build. The initiative doesn’t identify from where the money to build those classrooms or to hire those teachers would come.
“Everyone loves class-size reduction,” Bond said. “We support the idea, but we don’t see a plan.”
State financial officials estimated the state would have to spend about $4.7 billion through 2019 to implement the class-size reductions written into the initiative. More than 7,400 teachers would need to be hired, as well as thousands more school and district personnel to support them.
The state would have to pay out more in levy equalization money to districts, which are provided to communities whose low property values limit the effect of local school levies.
State lawmakers already are under the gun to provide more for K-12 education thanks to a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling, commonly called the McCleary decision, that said the state violated the state constitution by not properly funding schools. Reducing class sizes was part of the court’s ruling, but only at grades K-3, said state Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland.
“It’s a well-intentioned initiative but it’s not a ‘need’, it’s a ‘want,’ ” Haler said.
The initiative’s supporters used aspects of the McCleary decision to write the ballot measure on class-size reduction, Haler said. However, they expanded it beyond the court’s ruling, and that doesn’t make it binding on the Legislature the same way the original decision is.
Satisfying the McCleary decision is the Legislature’s top priority, Haler said, and reducing class sizes for all grades isn’t possible with the state’s current resources. The only ways to do it would be to raise taxes or take away from other areas, such as health care or higher education, all which he is loath to do.
“I can’t say if the Legislature can ignore (the initiative), but I can’t support what it will do for other state efforts,” he said.
Bond said the initiative also doesn’t take into account the additional teachers and space needed to implement full-day kindergarten, another state education goal tied to the McCleary decision.
Despite the lack of an identified money source to reduce class sizes, Hogg said closing state tax loopholes could be one means of paying for the initiative. Additionally, not all the new teachers would need to have their own classrooms, as co-teaching can also reduce the student-to-teacher ratios.
The main point, however, is that education needs to be the Legislature’s top priority.
“They need to take some action,” she said.