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Class-Size Reduction Measure in Washington State Squeaks Through

In a very close decision, Washington voters appear to have approved a Nov. 4 ballot initiative to reduce class sizes and hire many more teachers and other school personnel. But the victory leaves one big question still open: How to pay for it. 

The contest was so tight that mail-in ballots were still being counted this weekend. But backers of the initiative, no. 1351, declared victory because the remaining absentee ballots are from counties where voters had largely favored the program.

The initiative requires the hiring of more teachers across the grade levels in order to reduce class sizes. Importantly, it also requires schools to hire many more librarians, counselors, school nurses, paraprofessionals, facilities and maintenance staff, 

Here are the the new average size caps for all classes, and for schools with more than 50 percent of students in poverty.

  • Grades K-3: 17 students / 15 students, down from about 25;
  • Grade 4: 23 students / 22 students, down from about 27;
  • Grade 5-12: 25 students / 23 students, down from as high as 28.

The increases for other positions vary. As an example, the measure requires about three and a half counselors in each high school, up from two. In all, the measure is expected to require the hiring of 7,000 teachers and 18,000 other personnel, the Seattle Times estimated.

Importantly, the initiative doesn't tell districts how to achieve those sizes; it just promises them extra cash in order to do it. And it's not a strict per-classroom cap, but an average across all classrooms, which means some classes could still be quite a bit bigger.

The initiative's price tag is expected to be around $2 billion, and that's on top of what's estimated to be another $3-4 billion in the wake of the state supreme court's decision, in 2012's McCleary v. Washington, that the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to fund public education. It's unclear how either of the mandates will be financed because the law doesn't specify a funding source.

Supporters of the ballot initiative included the National Education Association and its Washington state chapter, which together kicked in close to $3 million to support the measure. And supporters generally hope the added pressure will spur the legislature to address the McCleary decision and pony up more cash for the schools.

Opponents, including school boards associations and others, noted that much of the funding under the initiative won't even be spent directly on class size. The funding for other kinds of personnel will balloon budgets, they argued, and could fall heavily on school districts. 

Research Context

In general, class-size-reduction programs have been popular among teachers, who like having fewer pupils; among unions, who stand to gain more members; and among parents, because smaller classes are a tangible reform that seems to benefit their kids (compared to esoteric-seeming policies such as using value-added formulas for teacher evaluation.) 

But the research on class size has been notoriously difficult to parse. The most famous study, a randomized experiment from Tennessee, found benefits for students—particularly minority students and those from inner cities—in grades K-3 when the classes were between 13 and 17 students. Overall, the research is much less clear for the upper elementary and secondary grades. 

Though class size remains perennially popular, most districts haven't been able to replicate the conditions of the Tennessee study—because they couldn't meet the class-size stipulations, because they lacked enough classrooms, or because of a lack of qualified teachers to hire for the new spots. 

The Washington initiative references the second issue, stating that districts with "capital facility needs that prevent them from reducing actual class sizes to funded levels" may use class-size funds for school personnel who provided "direct services" to students. The Tennessee study, though, did not find significant benefits from regular-sized classes that had more teacher assistants. 

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