Opinion Columns & Blogs

Spend McCleary money on small class sizes

After spending nearly half of 2013 in extended sessions, the Washington Legislature will ring in 2014 with what nearly everyone hopes will be a session of unremarkable length. With higher-than-expected revenue coming in, there will be no second round of cuts to the budget, a relief to the entire state for sure.

But one key issue remains unresolved from last session, and the six sessions before that as well — adequately funding the education of Washington children. The courts have ordered the state to find the funds, and leaders in Olympia will have to figure out exactly where to increase funding as well.

What state government can do to come up with the additional funding required to fully fund education in Washington is a critical conversation, but there is a crisis coming in the form of class sizes so high that no other educational reform effort will take root.

You could argue the crisis is already here. When it comes to class size, Washington is 47th in the nation – our kids have more classmates than children in 46 other states. From first-graders in classes of 26 or more to high school seniors trying to learn calculus in classes of more than 30, it is a problem that affects every grade.

The research on class size and its effect on learning is clear. Studies from Tennessee, Wisconsin and elsewhere show that students assigned to smaller classes in K-3 do better in every way that can be measured — higher test scores, better grades and improved attendance.

A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education analyzed the achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools across the nation, as measured by their performance on the national NAEP exams. After controlling for student background, the only objective factor found to be correlated with higher student achievement was class size — not school size, not teacher qualifications nor any other variable that the could be identified.

Even without the mountain of data, most parents know instinctively that smaller classes are better. There is a reason that institutions from charter schools to private schools to colleges tout small classes as a reason to enroll. Smaller classes mean more one-on-one time for students, better control for teachers and less opportunity for kids to fall through the cracks.

The people of Washington have voted once already to demand reasonable class sizes for our children. Even as the Legislature suspended that mandate, the bi-partisan Quality Education Council established by the Legislature in 2009 has recommended class sizes anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent smaller than the current numbers.

The state Supreme Court has ordered state leaders to increase school funding by more than a billion dollars in the next few years. How that money will be spent is important, and it is important that it be spent reducing class size.

Parents across the state understand that class size counts for our kids, and we need the leadership in Olympia to know it too.

Dick Cvitanich is the superintendent of Olympia Public Schools and a member of Class Size Counts. The article is signed by five other members of Class Size Counts, including Gary Plano, superintendent, Mercer Island Public Schools; Bart McManus; Nathe Lawver; Ben Stuckart, president of Spokane City Council; and Rand Wilhelmsen, board director of Peninsula Public Schools.