The not-so-simple path to reducing Washington state class sizes

Schools discover numerous obstacles despite funding from the Legislature

Staff writerOctober 13, 2013 


Kindergarten teacher Kristie Hursh listens to one of her 25 students at Brookdale Elementary School in Parkland on Monday, September 30, 2013. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

LUI KIT WONG — Staff photographer Buy Photo

Kindergarten classes at East Side Tacoma’s Roosevelt Elementary School average 16 1/2 students this year, according to school district figures. But across town in South Tacoma, Manitou Park Elementary School’s kindergarten classes are more than half again as large at 25 each.

Both schools have high levels of poverty, and both are in the same district. But as in other places around the state, class sizes aren’t always consistent from one school to another.

“It frustrates me when I have constituents come and tell me, I’ve got my second-grader in a class of 33 kids,” state Senate budget chairman Andy Hill said. “We drive money to get it lower, but it’s not happening.”

Money provided by the Legislature for reducing class sizes, though, has shrunk dramatically amid budget cuts. But the problem identified by everyone from the state teachers union and its Democratic allies to Redmond Republican Hill may be about to improve for one small slice of the state’s students: kindergartners and first-graders in schools with high levels of poverty.

In a $1 billion package of new school funding this year, lawmakers earmarked only a tenth for class-size reduction. But they targeted it to that subset of students — and they tied strings to the money requiring districts to show that classes are small.

That mandate doesn’t take effect until next year. The Legislature gave targeted schools money intended to keep lower-grade classes below 20.85 students this year, but also gave them a year to get ready. And the lawmakers reached a deal on the budget too late for districts to count on the money in their budget process.

The end result is that the $45 million increase that districts are projected to receive this school year, while intended for class-size reduction, can essentially be spent as districts like, according to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office.

Some districts say it will be used on class size to free up local money that now can go to other areas in need — such as special education and bilingual education, in the case of Franklin Pierce Schools, or counselors and librarians, in the case of Fife School District.

Tacoma Public Schools is unusual among South Sound districts in planning to use the money on a midyear addition of teachers to help kindergarteners and first-graders — hopefully 15 teachers in all, said Rosalind Medina, Tacoma’s interim chief financial officer.

“Really, it’s good for kids, so there’s no reason not to do it now,” Medina said.

Rather than take over 15 new classes, though, the teachers would take on a rotating cast of students pulled out of their regular classes a few at a time for help with their individual needs, mainly in reading.

State requirements kick in next school year, when schools where more than half of students receive free or reduced lunch will have to keep kindergarten and first grade classes below 20.3 students to get the extra money, using a calculation the state is determining.

But in some places, it might be easier said than done to shrink class sizes. Some school officials don’t know if they will have the physical space or the local salary money to add enough classes to qualify for the money.

It will cost Bethel School District $400,000 to $1 million more than the money the state plans to hand out, as calculated by the district, which is telling lawmakers it can’t afford that price tag and asking them to repeal or change the requirement to keep class sizes low.

Other items in the $1 billion package should free up money that could be used by districts like Bethel to comply with the class-size requirement, said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican and one of the architects of the funding plan. Lawmakers crafted the plan to address the state Supreme Court’s decision in what is known as the McCleary case. The court ruled last year that Washington isn’t adequately funding its schools.

But Bethel officials said the court decision is supposed to make the Legislature take over the cost of basic education from school districts, not impose extra costs on the districts. They said, too, that their new funding is only an increase from slashed levels.

“It does not accomplish filling the hole that was dug (in) the recession,” said Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel, who detailed some of the items that have eaten up the district’s budget this year.

“To say we have a million bucks lying around to put into this is just not correct,” he said of class size. And he prefers to avoid splitting teachers between classes or buildings, saying it’s better for instructors to be building relationships full time.

The problem as Seigel sees it, and the innovation as some lawmakers like Dammeier see it, is that each school must show low class sizes to get its cut of the money. That much is clear, even if the details — and the true price tag for districts — are waiting for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn’s office to write the rules for the program.

Bethel would prefer lawmakers to cap the average class size of all schools in the district, allowing for some to be lower and some higher, rather than cap each school. Other districts have similar concerns, Seigel said.

The details of class-size funding were some of the last to be resolved in negotiation sessions that went long into the night, budget negotiators said. Dammeier said they made the right decision.

“We don’t want it to necessarily be at the district level, because we want to make sure the money gets down to the school, to a high-poverty school,” said Dammeier. He said it’s “all part of our bigger effort to really close the achievement gap” between students of different economic and racial backgrounds.

The stakes of this dispute will rise if the Legislature manages to fulfill its promise to the court to bring class sizes to 17 by 2017 in all kindergarten, first, second and third grades — not just those in high-poverty schools.

The estimated cost to the state’s two-year budget of those teachers is about $1.1 billion. And because it would be written into law as part of basic education, it would be a more permanent expense than previous class-size reduction efforts the Legislature has gutted.

The Washington Education Association lobbied hard for making a major dent in that goal this year, and the Democrat-controlled House championed it in budget negotiations. But the Senate’s mainly Republican majority at first resisted including any money this year. They said they were hearing concerns from districts about a space crunch, and worried about whether the money would go to its intended purpose — prompting the cap on sizes.

The final package included $104 million for class-size reduction over two years, smaller than additional amounts for districts’ supplies, buses and remedial learning.

“We wanted a lot more money in class-size reduction, but capacity is an issue,” explained Rep. Pat Sullivan, the House majority leader and a Covington Democrat.

Indeed, some districts are now wondering where to put the extra classes.

“In all honesty, we kind of run out of space,” said Jeff Role, deputy superintendent for Yelm Community Schools, explaining why the first grades at Fort Stevens Elementary would likely remain at an average of 26.67 students, at least this year.

The school did have just enough space to add another kindergarten this year, he said, bringing class sizes in that grade down to 20.75, just under what state funding is intended to allow this year.

“It’s great,” he said of the extra funding, “but when you have to add more sections of classes you’ve got to have room for them.”

Passing local bond measures to build new facilities, he said, is difficult.

First grades are supposed to be no larger than 25 students under the district’s contract with teachers, he said. When classes exceed that size, the contract allows for several alternatives, Role said — including a stipend for affected teachers of $150 a month.

Stipends of that kind are among the alternatives called for in several of local districts’ contracts with teachers, including in Federal Way and Puyallup — highlighting both the pervasively large sizes and the significance of the issue to teachers unions.

Other districts offer varying kinds of help. Tacoma, for example, has added a teacher’s aide at Manitou Park classrooms that exceed what’s provided by the contract.

The WEA is making a big push to highlight what it says are the nation’s 47th most-crowded classes. Only Oregon, Utah and California’s classes are larger, according to its umbrella group, the National Education Association.

While policymakers argue about the value of smaller class sizes for older students, there is widespread agreement that class size can help in the lower grades, and research backs it up.

Reviewing 53 studies for a report issued in January, the state-funded, nonpartisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy found the studies show spending money on reduced class size in early grades tends to pay off with benefits for kids later in life that outweigh the state’s costs.

For kindergartners, for example, the review found the economic benefits had a 99 percent chance of equaling or exceeding the costs. In grades 5-12, the chance was lower, between 56 percent and 59 percent. That left a substantial risk, the institute said.

For some parents of younger kids, the benefit seems clear, although they say there are other factors at play in their kids’ classes as well.

Kelly Gage, whose son Payton is now a third-grader, recalls him being packed into a kindergarten class that peaked at 29 students and ended the year at 26. Nevertheless, she remembers his teacher walking around the class checking on each student counting cubes or filling out work sheets.

“He had a really fantastic kindergarten teacher, and she made sure that she had a lot of help from parent volunteers,” said Gage, who volunteered in the class on longer days. “I think if she didn’t have that help it would have been a lot harder and it would have worn her out. … He may not have had as good an experience.”

Gage is president of the parent teacher association at Mountain View Elementary in Lacey, where administrators recently rearranged programs to free up space for another kindergarten classroom, cutting average kindergarten class size from 25 to 20.

Reducing class size has been popular with the public. The WEA isn’t saying if it will pursue a ballot measure to get its way, but a 2000 initiative that included class-size money passed overwhelmingly — only to be repealed last year by a Legislature that had rarely funded it to begin with. Initiative 728 spent more money and was more wide-ranging than the current class-size infusion.

The WEA has the most well-financed Washington-based political committee, and it has spent more on lobbying state government this year than any other group. It aims to persuade lawmakers in 2014 to increase long-frozen state teacher pay and put a larger share of the budget into reducing class sizes.

“We’re going to go into the short session making this a big issue, one the Legislature did not adequately address in this current budget,” WEA spokesman Rich Wood said.

When members of the Franklin Pierce Schools teachers union gathered for a back-to-school celebration on a recent weeknight at Famous Dave’s barbecue at the South Hill Mall, the first thing leaders had them do as they showed up was to write down how many kids they have in their classes.

Those numbers were being posted on a website, Anyone can post their own numbers, adding to what is already more than 2,900 entries. (The News Tribune relied on data from school districts, not the website, for this story.) The campaign is an effort by the WEA- and NEA-funded group Class Size Counts to highlight overcrowding.

The number was 25 for Kristie Hursh, who teaches kindergarten at Brookdale Elementary.

The big class is amplified by Hursh’s responsibilities under a program called the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, designed to tailor lessons to each child’s development.

Hursh observes each of the 25 kids closely, recording how they hold a pencil, how they kick a ball, whether they use capital letters. Then she makes computer entries for each child, recording them on numeric scales to show their development in each area.

Meanwhile, 25 kids are learning not just lessons but a new world of behavior — how to sit at a desk without roaming the classroom, how to walk to the lunchroom and return to class with a tray of food.

“Walking in line,” Hursh said, “takes a long time.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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