Class sizes grow as states confront budget woes

Cash-strapped school districts and states are backing away from reductions in class size, a reform touted as a magic bullet to improve failing public schools.

Class sizes in many districts are swelling – particularly in middle and high schools – and initiatives aimed at primary grades are being rolled back. Experts say the shift is a result of severe budget cuts and mixed findings on whether smaller classes boost learning.

"[Class size reduction] has got this silver-bullet kind of mythology surrounding it," says Eugene Hickok, undersecretary of the US Department of Education. "[But] as states confront tough choices on budgets, what should guide [them] should be what works...."

Under the "No Child Left Behind" education plan, the administration recently eliminated a Clinton-initiated, $1.6 billion fund for class-size reduction.

At the state level, Massachusetts is expected to kill its $18 million program to limit class size in Grades K-3 in low-income schools. Washington State recently slashed funding for smaller classes in primarily Grades K-4 by $24.5 million. Large districts in Oregon and Utah are boosting maximum class sizes.

Similarly, in Tennessee, tight budgets are expected to push class sizes up in all grades. And in Florida, a proposed ballot initiative to constitutionally limit class sizes is running into fierce opposition.

Class-size reduction gained momentum with a 1980s study in Tennessee, which found that students learn best in classes of 13 to 17, particularly in primary grades. It also found that low-income and minority students reap the greatest gains. A Wisconsin study had similar results. More than 20 states have launched class-size initiatives.

But some educators say its promise is destined to fade. "Previous movements to reduce class size without consideration for where it was done or for whom it was done was just wasteful," says Stanford University professor Eric Hanushek.

The Bush administration favors teacher training as a more pressing reform. Its plan allows states and local districts to use federal funding, once earmarked only for smaller classes, for such training or to hire more teachers.

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