Our View: Time for honest class size discussion in Steamboat school district
March 19, 2013
Few issues spark the passion of Steamboat Springs parents more than class sizes in our public school system. Unfortunately, passion doesn't always equate to reason and sound fiscal policy. As the Steamboat Springs School Board and the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board grapple with how to budget their limited dollars most effectively for the coming school year, we hope they carefully consider the value of small class sizes in relation to other educational programs and expenses.
For many years, the school district has asked the Fund Board to pay the salaries of teachers needed to keep class sizes with the district's mandated ratios. And for many years, the Fund Board has fulfilled that request. This year, the Steamboat Springs School District is requesting a whopping $1.3 million from the Fund Board to pay the salaries of 22 full-time employees. That single request is for more money than all of the district's other funding requests from the volunteer group that oversees the city's half-cent sales tax for education.
At a joint meeting of the School Board and Fund Board last week, a group of parents and elementary school teachers urged the boards to further reduce class sizes, with at least one parent calling the district's current class-size policy outrageous.
We disagree with that assessment. More to the point, we question the value of spending so much taxpayer money to achieve slight reductions in class size, particularly when research shows questionable benefits of doing so. By analyzing the few available credible studies, a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution found that class size reduction had the greatest positive impact when classes were reduced by 7 to 10 students at elementary levels and for kids who come from "less advantaged backgrounds." The impact also was greater in classrooms with lower-quality teachers. Most studies revealed a smaller impact or no impact at all. Conversely, there is no shortage of studies supporting the notion that teacher quality has a more significant impact on student learning than any other classroom factor, including class size.
Perhaps equally important is weighing the expense of achieving small variations in class size in Steamboat's schools versus what else could be accomplished with that money. That's where we hope the School Board and the Fund Board resist the urge to simply grease the squeaky wheel. We understand the political hurdles associated with the class-size debate, and it sounds like Superintendent Brad Meeks and some Fund Board members do, too. Meeks kicked off last week's meeting by presenting years' worth of enrollment and class size data for the district along with research that showed a quality teacher is more important to student achievement that the number of students in a class.
"The challenge is taking what the research says and what the community needs are and balancing that with the resources we have available," he said.
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The passion our community — especially its parents — has for education is one reason why the Steamboat Springs School District remains one of the top-performing districts in the state. But let's not throw good money at bad policy. Paraprofessionals, teachers aides and other educational tools are examples of what might be far more cost-effective methods of leveraging taxpayer dollars for improved student achievement than more teachers and slightly smaller, or even stable, class sizes. Ultimately, we welcome the Fund Board and School Board's efforts to start a serious, fact-based discussion about class sizes.