Thursday, February 21, 2013

Class size debates should be based on the numbers

Today’s headlines that public school class sizes are growing larger are often exaggerated. Some states have increased class sizes slightly since the recession of 2008, but others have held steady or declined. The average class is still smaller than it was in the 1999-2000 school year.

In a new brief from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, researchers Marguerite Roza and Monica Ouijdani estimate average class sizes in all fifty states and D.C. Their analysis suggests that recent discussions have ignored the data on current class sizes, as well as their costs.

According to The Opportunity Cost of Smaller Classes: A State-By-State Spending Analysis, smaller classes come with a sizeable price tag. The cost nationally of maintaining current class sizes, compared to increasing the average by 2 students, is $15.7 billion per year, or an average of $319 per pupil. Adding the cost of benefits for the extra teachers required to keep class sizes low drives up the estimate to over $20 billion nationally.

As the authors write, “in an environment of scarce resources, those seeking better outcomes in education have begun rethinking previous decisions to lock up their funds in small classes.” These dollars might instead fund teacher compensation reforms, restore or lengthen the school year, or equip classrooms with new learning technologies to personalize instruction.

Of course, class sizes vary from state to state, as will the amounts of funds that could be repurposed. However, any discussions of smaller classes should consider the full costs and how dollars might be used differently, and whether, in times of fiscal scarcity, smaller classes really are worth the price.

The study is part of the “Rapid Response” brief series, designed to bring relevant fiscal analyses to policymakers amidst the current economic crisis.

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