Class Size Reduction is Expensive

Class size reduction is the latest prescription for the ills of government schools in Michigan and across the nation. While intuition may suggest that classes with fewer than 15 students are more productive than classes of more than 30, proposals to mandate smaller classes across-the-board make for poor education policy.

It is true that Michigan’s student-to-teacher ratio is one of the highest in the nation. Why is this so?

Although the state’s education spending has increased 51 percent since 1990 and will reach nearly $12 billion during the 1999 fiscal year, the majority of money will go toward the salaries and benefits of employees. As a result, Michigan’s teachers enjoy some of the highest salaries and benefits in the country while average class sizes have remained in the mid-twenties. The math is quite simple: Money spent in one area cannot be spent in another.

But if reducing class sizes makes for smarter students, why not plow even more money into government education?

The problems with such policies are many, including high costs, shortages of qualified teachers, and a lack of commensurate academic improvement. Class size reduction programs are extremely expensive. California discovered this in 1997 when Governor Pete Wilson had to raise education expenditures by over $1 billion to pay for additional teachers and classrooms.

Michigan has also experienced the expensive nature of class size mandates. Three years ago the Flint City School District was required by law to reduce its student-to-teacher ratio to 17-to-1 in the kindergarten through third grade. As a result, the Flint schools were forced to spend an extra $30 million to pay for an additional 250 teachers and provide more classrooms.

Recently, Governor Engler announced that 17 school districts would be receiving nearly $20 million to lower their student-to-teacher ratios.

Class size reduction programs are costly because hiring additional teachers and building more facilities are two of the most expensive components of providing an education. However, in addition to expense, a frequently overlooked problem of such mandates is the current shortage of qualified teachers.

Last year the Detroit Free Press reported that one in every seven teachers in Detroit’s public schools were substitutes lacking teacher certification—the measuring stick by which the government determines quality. Nationally, the U. S. Department of Education found that nearly one in three government school teachers of academic subjects in middle- and high-school were teaching courses in which they had neither majored nor minored as undergraduates. Without quality teachers, any potential benefits of smaller classes are sharply reduced and the current shortage of teachers would be exacerbated.

But even if the costs and inherent risks of class size reduction programs were minimized, recent research demonstrates that smaller class sizes fail to dramatically improve academic achievement. Renowned education economist and professor Eric Hanushek of the University of Rochester reported that while the student-to-teacher ratio in the United States fell by 35 percent between 1950 and 1995, academic performance by the nation’s 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam has remained virtually stagnant since 1970.

As for the fourth-graders in the Flint City School District, their 1996 Michigan Education Assessment Program scores only slightly improved as a result of reduced class sizes. In fact, the percentage of students that performed "low" in reading and math remains nearly double the state average.

Since the shortcomings of class size reduction programs are evident and the benefits ambiguous, legislators and citizens should advocate other education policy prescriptions that are more likely winners.

Studies have demonstrated that parental involvement has the strongest correlation with improved academic performance. Rather than increasing the cost of government education by reducing class sizes, parents, teachers, and politicians ought to pursue policies that empower parents with greater educational choices.

Smaller class sizes are merely another fad that diverts attention from the real problems in government education. Only when parents are allowed to guide the education of their children will Michigan begin to remedy what ails its schools.