The Wrong Way to Fix Class Sizes

Last month, I wrote about a topic that is as dear to my heart as any educational issue: class sizes.  For teachers, there is no greater example of the ills of our public education system than the growing sizes of our public school classrooms. Lots of data show that this is the single most important factor that we can fix to get this big ship turned around.

flickr user stijn

Of course, class size is closely tied to education spending (smaller classes = more teachers = more taxes), but the state of Florida has enacted a potentially disastrous legislative solution.  The General Assembly has decreed that any school system exceeding the class size limit must pay steep fines ($3000 per pupil).  This seems to me to be a case of faulty economics.

Economics boils down to incentives.  Use laws and regulations to encourage people to do what needs to be done, say economists.  In the case of Florida’s schools, it would seem pointless to punish districts when their state funding has been cut and tax revenues are down in drastic ways.  It’s like reducing my son’s allowance and then docking him further when he doesn’t pay his share of the expenses.

On the other hand, educators in New Zealand are striking because of class sizes.  They want additional compensation when class sizes exceed 30 students.  Again, I see an economic problem here.  Class sizes are rising primarily because government income is shrinking.  Where are districts supposed to get the funding to pay teachers if they can’t afford to lower class sizes?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should let class sizes grow unfettered.  However, I think that we need to tie the consequences of these growing classes (e.g., teacher burnout, student disciplinary problems, test scores) to the forces that have put them there.  Don’t ask cash-strapped districts to correct the problem in the midst of an economic downturn.  Perhaps, when state legislatures cut education funding, forcing teacher layoffs, districts can be given discretionary money from bond referenda or state lottery proceeds to correct the problem until tax revenues improve.  Or, even better, end the antiquated practice of funding our schools through property taxes altogether.

Our public education system is too important to ride on the ebb and flow of financial cycles.  Class sizes are the hull of this great ship.   Let them get out of control or throw blame where it doesn’t belong, and this ship will take on water even faster than it already is.

Am I crazy?  Do you have a better idea?  Please let me know!