Croft's bill offers incentives to schools with small classes

Legislation would cost $150 million a year if all districts cut class sizes

Posted: Friday, April 08, 2005

Rep. Eric Croft wants the state to give more money to schools that reduce class sizes to 15 or fewer students.

House Bill 247, introduced this week, would apply to grades kindergarten through three.

Schools would have to agree to keep class sizes that small for five years so the effect on student achievement could be studied.

The bill proposes funding students in those small classes at $8,000 each. The current base allocation is $4,576.

"I want teachers to have time to teach," Croft, D-Anchorage, said. "When you have 25 first-graders, you're a traffic cop. You're wiping noses and putting on 25 pairs of boots. When you have 15 students in your class, you can actually teach."

Dave Newton, principal at Auke Bay Elementary in Juneau, said the bill was a good idea as long as the additional funding was guaranteed over time.

At first glance, the new funding would be more than enough to hire teachers and add more specialists to cover the new teachers' preparation time.

But it's not clear if schools would have enough classrooms, and whether the new funding would cover all of the operating costs of new schools, if they were needed.

For example, the bill would allow three classrooms of 25 students to become five classrooms of 15 students.

Over an entire district, such as Juneau, that sort of transformation would mean hiring many new teachers and finding a lot of space.

At Auke Bay Elementary, 10 current classrooms for kindergarten through grade three, which have 22 to 30 kids in them, could become 17 classrooms of 15 or fewer children.

"The district probably would have to maximize the existing spaces in buildings, which may include bringing in portables until additional schools would be built," Newton said.

"If you want smaller classes, you have to find the space and you have to find the teachers," said Joan McRobbie, a senior policy associate at WestEd, a regional nonprofit that studies education.

Some states that mandated smaller classes blunted the benefits by hiring inexperienced teachers, she said.

In some cases, states didn't give enough money to cover all of the new costs, including adding to facilities, McRobbie said.

In California, which mandated smaller classes in early grades but didn't fully fund them, schools increased classes in the intermediate grades, Newton said.

"We wanted to encourage rather than mandate, and we wanted to provide maximum flexibility," Croft said.

Croft expects that if the bill becomes law, school districts would phase in smaller classes over time. Districts would have enough time to plan new facilities and seek state help with construction costs, just as they do now, he said.

The state hasn't studied the fiscal effects of Croft's bill, which hasn't had a hearing yet. But Croft said it could cost $150 million a year if every school district implemented it.

"That's big but that's about what we have increased the education money by over the last two years," he said. "It's not off-the-charts fantasy."

Still, the House is stuck this session at raising school funding by about $70 million, and the Senate agreed to only $32 million, pending resolution of retirement fund issues.

Rep. Jim Holm, R-Fairbanks, introduced a bill last month that would mandate class sizes of 20 or fewer in kindergarten through grade three. House Bill 228 also hasn't had a hearing.

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