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Class Size Matters

Reformers claim that class size is overemphasized in explaining the performance of schools.  But try telling that to the Clark County School District, where enrollment hit a record 318,597, forcing 13 of the district's 357 schools to remain open 12 months a year ("Las Vegas Schools Groan From Growing Pains," The New York Times, Oct. 7).

Making the situation worse is a shortage of teachers to fill the 650 vacancies in the district's roster of 18,000 teaching positions.  This is seen in first-grade classes, which have 25 children instead of the recommended 16. Elementary schools are 17.6 percent over capacity.

What I see brewing in Clark County is a perfect storm that serves as a reminder of how hard it is for school officials to plan for changing conditions.  I don't think taxpayers understand the complexities.  For example, just two years ago enrollment in Clark County schools was 308,377. Today, there are 10,220 more students.  Unlike private and religious schools that have the right to turn away students when their classrooms are filled up, public schools must enroll almost everyone who shows up at the schoolhouse door.  

Since it is impossible to predict changing economic conditions and social trends, school officials are too often caught flatfooted.  Let's not forget that even if they get it right, new schools don't appear by pressing a button.  It takes time and money.  In the case of Clark County, a $669 million school bond construction measure was defeated in 2012.  Retirees saw no reason to raise their taxes to pay for schools at a time when the forecast was for a protracted recession.  Even now, I doubt they would be more inclined.

Therein lies the problem. As long as students can be crowded into makeshift structures, most taxpayers who are either childless or whose children have grown up tend to resist efforts to decrease class size.  I'd like to have them observe these classes because I think many would change their minds.  Teachers cannot possibly meet the needs and interests of their students after a certain point is reached.  Class size in elementary school is critical because young children lack self-control.  It's in those early years of schooling that the foundation for learning is firmly established.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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