Smaller classes, more money

Southwest lawmaker promotes bill that would pay school districts to keep class sizes down

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Southwest DFLer, has introduced a bill that would encourage school districts to keep classes smaller by offering schools additional funding if they hit targets for classroom sizes.

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee in March, and it awaits further scrutiny by the Finance Committee.

Calling class size the hottest issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) this year, Hornstein stressed that the problem isn't limited to the district. Other legislators agree; one-third of Minnesota House members have signed on as co-authors.

Under the proposal, school districts that keep class sizes down would be eligible for $500 per student for elementary students and $100 per for secondary

students.

To receive the money, schools would be required to keep class sizes smaller for younger students: 20 students for kindergarten through 3rd-grade classes, 25 students for 4th through 9th grade and 28 students for 10th to 12th graders.

The bill allows for flexibility in classes that are intentionally larger, such as orchestra. Also, the Commissioner of Education would be required to record class sizes on district report cards. Money for the $300 million plan would come from the state Tax Relief Account and budget surplus that's predicted to be $88 million this year.

&#8220Education has been a real personal interest of mine, and my kids are in huge classes at Barton and South High School. It's something I feel personally,” said Hornstein. &#8220Parents, kids and teachers will tell you that the learning environment is better in a small class. It's common sense. This is a serious statewide problem.”

Hornstein's bill isn't the only proposal regarding class size currently being debated in the House.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed a mandate for school districts to spend 70 percent of their budgets in the classroom. But 97 of 343 districts already spend 69 percent or more on classroom instruction, according to data collected by the Minnesota Department of Education.

Hornstein said the plan amounts to an unfunded mandate. &#8220When they don't have enough money, they can't do that. How does putting a mandate forward without any more money solve the problem?” he asked.

Crowded classrooms

Overcrowded classrooms are the result of steep budget cuts.

MPS has trimmed $100 million from its budget over the past four years. Even though the city passed a levy to reduce class size in 2000, state funding never materialized. Despite the Legislature's $800 million bonus to Minnesota schools last year, funding for special education and non-English speakers was frozen. On top of that, operating costs are still rising.

In effect, the district raised class sizes by four students in each grade level to cope with the cuts that totaled $24 million for this school year. There should be 26 children in K-3, 32 in grades 4-8 and 34 in grades 9-12, according to MPS guidelines.

Although 67 percent of classrooms fell below the guidelines and 16 percent met the average, 17 percent of classes had more students than allocated for.

Big classes have proven especially troublesome in popular Southwest schools, with classes exceeding enrollment expectations. In the fall, three Southwest elementary schools had to add kindergarten classrooms to cope with large class sizes.

Aside from Hornstein's proposal, MPS is considering providing area superintendents with contingency dollars to allocate to schools with oversized classes. The School Board also discussed the possibility of reducing class size in kindergarten and 1st grade and capping class sizes for English, math and science classes during a meeting on Tuesday, March 21.

But Jackie Turner, the director of student placement, cautioned that the district should be more flexible and opt instead for a &#8220desired class size maximum” because of wrinkles caused by transportation boundaries and school choice.

What the community says

Michael Boucher, a social studies teacher at South High School, 3131 19th Ave. S., spoke out against big class sizes this fall during a district-sponsored school forum.

He told the Southwest Journal that bigger classes mean more homework for teachers with more papers to grade and less time to do it. The teacher said it's also tougher to lead class discussions because there's not enough time to get everyone's input.

Boucher, who advocates an amendment to the state's Constitution to limit class sizes, said that he favors Hornstein's bill.

&#8220That looks great to me,” he said. &#8220I would hope the narrow scope and voluntary nature of the proposal satisfies those that are concerned about mandates that would quell their ability to have large choir and band classes or interdisciplinary classes.”

&#8220I'm a big fan of it,” said parent John Quincy, whose children attend South High and Field Community School, 4645 4th Ave. S. Quincy attended the press conference in which Hornstein's bill was introduced. &#8220What I like most is that it addresses a statewide issue and allows for flexibility as an aid packet rather than a Band-Aid. It helps spread out the expenses a little and put it where it's most needed.”

Quincy said that big classes are also burdensome to parents because they have to compensate for whatever their children might not be learning in school.

Some, however, don't think the bill goes far enough to address the problem.

Seth Kirk, a parent of kids at Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56th St., has worked in a volunteer parent activist group to reduce class size. &#8220I would say that the legislation is not perfect. It relies on average class sizes, and anyone with a class of 40 shouldn't be satisfied if the district average is on target,” he said on a public online parent forum, &#8220I believe that with the current structure of education funding in Minnesota, this legislation is the best state-level solution to overcrowded classrooms.”

Another parent, Kate Towle, who lives in the Prospect Park neighborhood and has children who go to Marcy Open School in Marcy-Holmes, also has concerns about the bill.

&#8220My first response is that the legislation would place responsibility on our schools themselves who do not have that level of autonomy yet to lower class sizes and gives the fiscal incentive after the fact,” she said. &#8220Might it be a catch-22 for the schools and district, both of which have to make plans on their actual, not anticipated, budgets?”

Towle, however, said that she believes the bill is still a step in the right direction.

Although worried that legislation might interfere with local school decisions, School Board Chair Joseph Erickson also lauded Hornstein's bill, &#8220I believe it is well-intentioned. The spirit of the bill is admirable and gets to the heart of the matter. We are underfunding our public schools.”