Small Classes in Jeopardy

Feb. 1, 2003
Reducing class sizes in tight economic times is a tough sell.

A horrendous economy is forcing many states and local school districts to sacrifice a politically — and educationally — popular initiative: reducing class sizes.

While most of those wielding the budget-cutting ax readily admit that small classes are still an important way to improve educational outcomes, many have no choice but to backtrack on the issue.

Case in point, as a way to reduce a deficit projected in the tens of millions of dollars, Baltimore City schools is considering, among other things, increasing class sizes. In 1997, one of the first actions the district took to help improve city schools was to reduce class sizes in elementary grades. The move is credited with helping the district significantly raise its elementary school test scores.

With massive cuts to K-12 education proposed, California schools — which have one of the most aggressive class-size-reduction programs in the nation — also are faced with little choice but to increase class sizes as a budgetary move.

In the prosperous 1990s, money to cut class sizes and hire more teachers was plentiful, as states and the federal government provided plenty of incentive to lower the number of students in a classroom. But as the economy continues to suffer, money has dried up, and many districts are finding they must abandon or suspend class-size-reduction efforts to conserve cash.

Reducing class sizes has been touted as an important factor in improving student performance. This and a general assumption that smaller is better have been the primary reasons behind the movement's popularity.

Currently, 32 states have implemented a class-size-reduction program and/or limited class size by statute. And even with budget shortfalls, class-size reduction continues to garner strong support.

For example, voters in Florida and Washington recently approved initiatives to reduce class sizes even though both governors stressed that the cost of such a program would cause serious budgetary harm. And, as a recent proposed change in funding threatened special programs, superintendents in Virginia last month urged lawmakers to preserve funding for reducing class sizes, obviously believing that smaller classes are beneficial.

Reducing class sizes has been one of the more generally accepted, albeit expensive, education initiatives. As states and local districts continue to search for ways to get out of their budget doldrums, it's important that the advancements made not be abandoned, and that the sentiment continues to be “keep class size down” — not “down with class size.”

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Average number of elementary- and secondary-school pupils per teacher in U.S. public schools, Fall 2001 — down from an average of 17.3 in 1991, and 18.8 in 1981.
Source: U.S. Department of Education.


Number of states that have implemented a class-size-reduction program and/or limited class size by statute (2002).
Source: Quality Counts 2003.


Average number of students per teacher in Vermont, the lowest of the 50 states and District of Columbia. The figure is down from 13.8 in 1994.
Source: U.S. Department of Education.


Average number of students per teacher in Utah, the highest of the 50 states and District of Columbia. The figure is down from 24.3 in 1994.
Source: U.S. Department of Education.


Number of states that require school report cards to include information on class size (2002).
Source: Quality Counts 2003.

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