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Show us the money or stop pandering: The problem with demanding smaller class size


show me the money

Since we’re in the middle of a school board election, voters should expect to hear both the demands and promises for smaller class size.

Here’s the problem:

Everyone—and I do mean everyone, including moi– loves the idea of smaller class size.

But no one—and I do mean no one—is willing to realistically propose how to pay for it—much less publicly ask voters for the dough.

And until that changes, calling for smaller class size is sort of  like calling for ponies for everyone. It sounds noble. People love it. But it’s mostly hot air and an attempt to change the subject away from stuff that we could actually do right now……to Something That Should Happen Some Day In A Brighter Future.

Here’s the deal (and I take no delight in this problem, but I do believe in being real about it. )

During the last round of teacher contract negotiations in Minneapolis, the district estimated it would cost between $60-$100 million or more to get class sizes down to 22 students or less—which is what the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers wanted.

In the MFT’s defense, most wealthy private schools—who have far fewer needy students—routinely offer this kind of class size. And heck, if it’s good enough for the One Percent, why shouldn’t the 99 Percenters have it too? I totally get this argument.

The problem is no one has the foggiest idea where to come up with that kind of money.

The Feds won’t fork it over because funding education is primarily up to the states and local cities.

Our state politicians have been unwilling to ask for it either. Which is interesting because here in Minnesota, we’ve had a DFL legislature and DFL governor for the last two sessions. And even my beloved DFLers—who tend to operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Education Minnesota—did not /could not/would not propose to raise the kind of money it would cost to lower class size in any significant way.

So that leaves us with trying to pay for small class size through local referendums and levies.

Lynn Nordgren, the head of the MFT, repeatedly says smaller class size is the best way for schools to close the achievement gap. If I had her job, I’d make the same argument.  The bigger the class size, the bigger the workload on teachers. Yes, smaller classes= more teachers hired=more MFT members, but I don’t think that’s the sole reason why the union wants smaller classes.

Parents want smaller classes too. My kids went to Minneapolis Public Schools. Big classes are a real problem.

But still, if you’re going to argue that small classes are THE best way for schools to close the achievement gap, for God’s sake, quit whining about it and do something. The MFT plus its school board members and legislators and anyone else who truly believes this is the best way for our schools to succeed should come up with an actual, realistic plan for how much smaller classes will cost and take the case directly to the voters.

And no, saying that smaller classes would be possible if we simply got rid of standardized testing is not a realistic plan.  The American Federation of Teachers estimates the cost of testing is between $50-$100 per student per year.  Which is a drop in the bucket compared to lower class size.

Ditto for plans that involve blowing up the central administration, although trust me, I’m sympathetic. (But can we also be honest here? The union absolutely needs a big centralized system to enforce its tenure, layoff and other contract rules and would totally freak out if anyone suggested moving to a decentralized, every-school-is-autonomous, New Orleans-style system of schools.)

At any rate, if we want lower class sizes we’re going to need giant piles of money, year in and year out. Which means we’ll need to raise taxes. Big time.

Asking voters to pay for smaller classes  won’t be an easy pitch. Nearly all the research shows that small class size is an expensive solution that doesn’t deliver much academic bang for the buck until class sizes are down to 15 kids or less.

And arguing for smaller class size skirts the real issue of teacher quality. To quote Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:  “Give me and my wife a choice of putting our kids with a great teacher of 28 or a mediocre teacher of 23, and I know what I’d choose every time.”

(I’d say the same thing and up the ante to current Minneapolis class levels. Give me a choice between a great teacher with 35 students and a mediocre teacher with 25. I’d want my kids with the better teacher.)

In short, any political leader who proposes a realistic way to raise the needed money is risking voter backlash.

Which is why we’re going to continue hearing calls for lower class size without any action. It’s dumb. It’s like calling for carbon-reduction while refusing to discuss realistic ways to switch to greener energy.

Or like the Republicans who always call for smaller government, but never want to say exactly what they plan to cut because that would risk voter backlash. Cutting government without pain is one of their big fantasies. Cutting class size without costs seems to be one of ours.

Until politicians and leaders are truly ready to Show Us The Money, small class size ain’t happening. They’re just pandering to us.

But still, it’s lot more fun (not to mention noble-sounding) to call for an impossible ideal rather than focus on the difficult tasks we could actually accomplish right now—-which would include asking adults to give up certain perks and powers so that our schools could work better for our students.

No wonder they’d rather talk about class size.

—-Lynnell Mickelsen




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