School Funding Fight Focuses On Class Sizes

Crowded classroom
Chicago 2016 / Flickr
Crowded classroom
Chicago 2016 / Flickr

School Funding Fight Focuses On Class Sizes

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When it comes to talking about the state budget and Chicago’s schools, it all comes down to class size. 

The threat is if state lawmakers don’t come up with more money for Chicago schools, class sizes will shoot up. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has told principals they will have to cut between 20 and 40 percent of their school budget. Those cuts, he says, would push average class size to near 40 students. 

State data show that class sizes in Chicago Public Schools are already much larger than state averages. What’s more, the primary grades—where experts say class size matters most — have seen big increases in Chicago schools. 

Kindergarten classes in Chicago are on average at 24.8 students, up from 23.2 in 2005. In first grade, they are now 25.5 up from 23.9; in second grade they are 25.9, up from 23.6; and, in third grade, at 26.5 up from 24.2. Those are averages — in many cases classes are much larger. 

Chicago Public Schools policy says class sizes should be at 28 in the primary grades and 31 for fourth through eighth grade. 

But these guidelines are not enforced. The only recourse teachers have is to complain to the union if their class size is too large. The union has $500,000 to provide additional teachers to schools. 

An analysis of CPS class size data from the 2015-2016 school year shows that 50,000 elementary students, or about one-fifth, are in class sizes over the limits set by policy.

Principals say they believe class sizes are of utmost importance, but they make compromises when they have to. 

Hawthorne Magnet School in Lakeview has some of the biggest class sizes in the district with about 60 percent of them over the limit. Principal Nate Pietrini says he pushes the limits, but pays for extra reading and math teachers so he can provide lower class sizes for those crucial subjects. 

“What it allows to happen, because we have phenomenal teachers at Hawthorne, is this intense knowledge of what teachers need so that they can provide them the right feedback and then stretch them beyond what they would have been stretched,” he says.

If the threatened budget cuts go through, Pietrini says he would likely have to cut those extra reading and math teachers, leaving regular homeroom teachers to deal with large class sizes all day.

Hawthorne also has art, music and daily gym—things that not all schools in CPS can afford, Pietrini says. 

Hawthorne first grade teacher Julie Wilson says that she wishes she could have low class sizes all day long. 

“You are just kind of pulled in so many more different directions,” she says. “The more kids, the more directions and the less time you have to sit and talk with one kid.”

Her sister-in-law is a first grade teacher in a suburb and when her class reached 24 students, rather than add one extra student, the school district hired a new teacher.

“One year, I had more girls in my class than she had students,” says Wilson, who notes that her students’ performance is measured against the students who are in much smaller class sizes. “It is just frustrating.”

Schools that have fewer low-income students have bigger class sizes on average than those with mostly poor students. Hawthorne has about 20 percent low income students, compared to a district average of 85 percent. 

There are many reasons for this, including that schools get extra money for poor students, which allows them to pay for more teachers. 

Minnie Watson, principal of DePriest Elementary School in Austin, says her class sizes are small with 25 to 28 in most classes. She says she can’t have bigger class sizes.

All her students are poor and come to the school with significant social and emotional issues.

“Anything more than that is very difficult,” she says. 

But if the state doesn’t come up with more money for Chicago schools and threatened budget cuts go through, she says she would have to cut teachers because she doesn’t have much fluff in her budget. 

“… It would be devastating for the children,” she says. “All the growth that we have—because we strategically use research-based best practices that say children who are high risk need to be in small class sizes—all the growth goes out the door.” 

Some advocates and bureaucrats want the state to start taking into account the type of best practices Watson is talking about. And the idea is gaining some traction. 

It is called the “evidence-based adequacy funding formula,” says Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. Basically, it takes into account what research says works and then builds a state funding formula around that. 

In schools with lots of poor students, it includes money for instructional coaches for teachers, intervention teachers to pull out struggling students, lots of counselors and things like librarians. 

But the biggest cost would be adjusting class size. According to the adequacy formula, students in kindergarten through third grade should be in classes with just 15 students and, in fourth through twelfth grade, they should be in classes with 25 students. 

Just getting to those levels in Chicago would be costly. WBEZ’s analysis of class size data shows that only 17 percent of students are currently in classes that would be considered adequate. 

Martire admits the cost to implement this formula would be high. However, he emphasizes that in the long run the state would not only save money, but Illinois also would become a better place for companies because workers would be better prepared. 

“There is no other funding model that exists where you ask the question: What can I expect to get as outcomes if we fund this? They don’t know because no other funding model is based on the research of what works,” Martire told the Illinois State Board of Education members at their May meeting. “If the state adopts an evidence-based model the answer becomes, if you fund this, student achievement will improve, graduation rates will improve, student discipline will improve, college attendance will improve.”

This funding model is part of a bill that passed out of the Senate on Friday. However, Martire admits it is a long shot to be included in whatever ends up happening this year.

Related document: Elementary school class size data

Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation