South Sound schools set to shrink class sizes for youngest

Legislature budgeted for smaller kindergarten and first-grade classes

Staff writerJune 15, 2014 

South Sound school districts may hire more than 60 extra kindergarten and first-grade teachers next year to shrink overcrowded classes.

The hires are the results of last year’s state budgeting. The Legislature may be way off pace of fulfilling its promise to shrink classes in the lower grades to 17 students, but lawmakers did add a fraction of the required money, targeting the poorest schools.

To get their full share of the $66 million next year, each of those schools will have to show average K-1 class sizes of 20.3 kids or fewer.

Local schools are all over the map in their readiness for meeting that cap, with a few showing sizes above 30, according to state records. They won’t all reach the target. Still, new teachers will help.

“By hiring additional staff, that means that our little ones get to have a little bit more individualized attention. It’s going to be wonderful,” said Pam Kruse, president of the teachers union in Franklin Pierce Schools, a district that plans to add 10 teachers in the lowest grades.

“We’re looking at staffing, and people are realizing, ‘I’m going to have 23; I’m not going to have 29,’” said Kruse, a former first-grade teacher now teaching middle school. “I don’t know about you, but 29 5-year-olds scare the crap out of me.”

Don’t look for more teachers everywhere. Lawmakers last year targeted money only to the two lowest grades and only to schools where more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

A state-funded cost-benefit analysis shows small class sizes pay off for early grades, but the trade-off is less clear in higher grades.

The Legislature has provided less than one-tenth of the more than $1 billion needed to fulfill a 2010 law requiring class sizes of 17 in kindergarten, first, second and third grades by the 2017-18 school year.

Even if lawmakers found all of that money, space constraints limit where teachers can be added. Some schools simply don’t have the classrooms.

And districts find themselves needing to spend some money from local taxpayers to pull down the full state funding.

To understand why, think of a school with 123 kindergarten and first-grade kids. Six teachers would not be enough to meet the standard of 20.3. The school might hire a seventh teacher, bringing average class size down to 17.5 — but state money will cover only a ratio of 1 teacher to 20.3 kids.

That’s why districts such as Bethel and Federal Way say they expect to be able to shrink classes but not all the way to the cap.

Voters have mandated lower class sizes, but no extra taxes to pay for them. They might do so again this year, if the Washington Education Association and its allies are successful in pushing for a ballot measure that would require funding for smaller classes in all grades. The teachers union says Washington has the 47th-most-crowded classes.

Lawmakers repealed a previous class-size initiative.

School districts received the new class-size money in the 2013-14 year without any strings attached. There was little time to budget the money before school started last fall. Tacoma Public Schools gave the money to schools to spend on temporary teachers to offer extra help to a rotating group of students, but that kind of hiring was rare.

This year, districts will mostly have to use it or lose it.

Data from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn’s office shows how much money school districts should expect to receive next year if their class sizes remain what they were last fall. It’s a dry run of sorts, and it shows some, like Tacoma, well-positioned to get almost all of the money.

But most South Sound districts — including Franklin Pierce, Olympia, North Thurston, Clover Park, Bethel and Federal Way — would be on track to give up more than one-quarter of the money if nothing changed. And some, such as Yelm and Puyallup, would expect to lose more than three-quarters of the money if the math works out the same next year.

But many will avoid losing the money by using it to hire more teachers. Franklin Pierce, Olympia, Clover Park, Bethel and Yelm all say they plan to add K-1 teachers.

And some may be able to pull down more money simply by changing how teacher jobs are reported to the state. Federal Way partly blames reporting discrepancies for its low funding estimate. Puyallup’s large class sizes may also be skewed by how it did the reporting.

Olympia School District expects to add one K-1 teacher at each of its high-poverty schools: Garfield Elementary and L.P. Brown Elementary.

Yelm Community Schools plans to hire two new teachers to join the seven already teaching kindergarten and first grade at its only high-poverty school, Fort Stevens Elementary, even though enrollment isn’t expected to rise much.

“If that (hiring) can continue and even expand, I think that’s definitely positive for the staff and students,” Yelm Deputy Superintendent Jeff Role said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826
jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.com
@Jordan_Schrader

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