Though much has been written about President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, little has been said about how his largest proposed cut to public schools, the total elimination of $2.4 billion in Title IIA funds, would likely increase class size across the nation.
Most schools have already have seen sharp increases in class size since the great recession. While the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff fell by 221,000 since 2008, the number of students increased by 1,120,000. In NY state, the total number of teachers in New York state public schools plunged by about 26,000 between 2008-2015, according to NYSED statistics. In New York City, this has resulted in sharp increases in class size, with Kindergarten through 3rd grade classes larger than they were in 1999; in grades 4-8, larger than in 2004. This year, more than 300,000 NYC students are crammed into classes of 30 or more.
The Title IIA program has existed at least since the Eisenhower administration, and until the year 2000 was used mostly for teacher training. President Clinton created a separate funding stream to help districts lower class size, but this dedicated funding was folded into the overall Title IIA program by George W. Bush when he became President. In 2015-2016, thirty-five percent of school districts used their Title IIA funds to hire teachers on staff to reduce class size- or more likely to prevent layoffs, and this was especially true in the highest poverty districts. In New York City, the entire allocation of $101 million in Title IIA funds was used to prevent further class size increases – which helped prevent the elimination of approximately 1000 teaching positions.
Why is this important? Class size reduction is not only extremely popular among parents and teachers – it is one of the very few reforms proven to work through rigorous evidence, and to provide especially large benefits for children from low-income families and students of color, who see twice the academic gains from small classes. Indeed, it is only one of a handful of educational policies that has been shown to significantly narrow the achievement gap between economic and racial groups.
Research has also linked smaller classes to improvements in many other ways, boosting non-cognitive skills and parent involvement. Class size reduction lessens disciplinary problems because students are more engaged in classroom discussion and debate and less likely to be disruptive. Small classes also ease teacher attrition rates – particularly in high-needs districts, because teachers are more successful they are less likely to quit the profession or transfer to schools with more advantaged students. See the Class Size Matters research summary, showing these and other benefits.
Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy Devos want to completely eliminate Title IIA funds, while at the same time increasing government support to privately-run schools, including charters, parochial and private schools. They claim to be supporting a parent’s right to choose by expanding these options. Yet most parent’s first choice is a well-resourced, neighborhood public school with reasonably small classes, to ensure that their children are provided with sufficient attention and feedback from their teachers. The proposed elimination of Title IIA funds will work against parent choice, by making it even more difficult for parents to access these options – and will undermine the quality of education their children receive, especially those students who need small classes the most.
Shortly before his death, Kurt Vonnegut was asked: “If you were to build or envision a country that you could consider yourself to be a proud citizen of, what would be three of its basic attributes”? Vonnegut responded: “Just one: great public schools with classes of 12 or smaller.” Interviewer: “That’s it?” Vonnegut: “Yeah….Just do this.”
Though it’s unlikely that any public schools will be able to offer class sizes that small, the least the federal government can do is help preserve the class sizes students currently have. You can see how much your state currently receives in Title IIA funds here.