Union aims to cut class size

Ballot initiative would encourage maximum of 15 students per teacher

Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The state's largest teachers' union wants to present a ballot initiative to reduce classroom sizes to 15 students for primary grades.

During a meeting last week of the National Education Association-Alaska Board of Directors and members, the union decided to start gathering signatures before the January deadline for the 2006 November election.

The initiative would not make the ratio mandatory for districts, but an option for schools who want to participate and receive funding from the state, said Bill Bjork, president of NEA-Alaska.

"It's a carrot rather than a stick," said Bjork. He did not say how much state funding would be offered.

Educators said they would be enthusiastic about the idea, but worried about how the ratio could be implemented with limited resources.

Reducing classroom sizes has been on the agenda of the NEA and school districts, especially in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which have seen population growth.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee followed students who were in classes of 15 students from kindergarten through third grade and found that the students were more likely to graduate from high school and perform better on tests.

Bjork said the NEA is basing the initiative's number on that research.

In 1996, the California's Assembly approved a program to reduce class sizes, but increased education budgets in the process to hire more teachers and erect portable trailers for classrooms on campuses.

The Juneau School Board recently approved a new target ratio for K-2 grades of 22 students per teacher, lowered from the 25 set three years ago.

"We wanted to go to 20 students but we didn't have resources and money," said Peggy Cowan, superintendent of the Juneau School District. Five teachers will be hired to brace for the reduction.

Auke Bay Elementary School principal Dave Newton said if the ratio is lower, schools must ensure their teachers have the methodology to teach smaller classes.

"We would want them to make use of their extra time," Newton said.

Alaska Department of Education spokesman Harry Gamble said the department recognizes the merits of smaller classrooms in lower grades, but does not have a position on this proposal yet.

Bjork said to get the initiative on the ballot, 35,000 signatures are required from 30 voter districts.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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