Opinion

The dark side of lower class-size provisions

Class size is currently a hot topic in Washington state, pushed to the forefront of policy discussions by the upcoming vote on Initiative 1351 in November.

I-1351 reportedly seeks to enhance the quality of education in Washington by requiring the state to allocate funding for smaller class sizes and increase student support staffing. Should this initiative be approved, it would cost approximately $6.6 billion more in state and local funds over the next four years and would secure the Washington Education Association about $7.4 million a year in additional mandatory dues, according to the Washington Policy Center,

Regardless of whether the initiative would actually reduce class sizes, there's another side to the issue of class sizes that many people don't realize. In periodic collective bargaining sessions between school districts and local teachers' unions, remedies for overloaded classes are one of many practices negotiated that have a direct impact on student services.

While some contracts specify remedies such as increased paraeducator or release time for teachers, a surprising number of districts offer additional compensation for teachers with overload students. In some districts, compensation is actually the go-to solution. Other districts make teachers the sole decision-maker in choosing the class size remedy that works for them.

Overload class size compensation can range anywhere from $6 a day for the first overload student to as much as $18 a day. The most generous districts offer teachers $1,800 or more per year for every overload student. Local taxpayers ultimately foot the bill for this class size “remedy.”

Auburn School District gives teachers the choice of overload compensation at the rate of $18 per student day, or $3,240 per year per overload student. Similarly, teachers in Puyallup School District automatically receive $1,500 a year if class-size goals are exceeded in their classroom. Additional compensation for overload students is also offered by Federal Way, Sumner, Clover Park and Bethel school districts.

The most concerning implication of this practice is the disincentive it creates for smaller class sizes and productive classrooms. When teachers are given the choice of additional compensation in amounts up to $3,240 a year, what motivation is there for them to seek other solutions that give students the best services for the class size they’re in?

Moreover, districts that give teachers unilateral authority to choose overload remedies not only hand off accountability for their decisions, but they also relinquish their ability to address the overload problem through other means. Solutions such as the creation of new class sections or additional paraeducator time would maintain the quality of student education regardless of the number of overload students.

Parents and community members alike would be wise to investigate the overload “remedies” already in effect in their school district and evaluate how those policies are impacting student services. If the quality of kids’ education is falling because of large class sizes, you might want to ask your local education association why they negotiated for overload compensation instead of other class-size solutions before you vote for Initiative 1351.

Bronwyn Clarke, a student at the University of Washington Tacoma, is a former intern at the Freedom Foundation.

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