Does Class Size Really Matter?

June 2022

For some time the actual data has been gray on that, but both parents and teachers have always answered that with a resounding “yes!”

And we’ve seen kids attending non-traditional schools, which almost always have smaller class sizes, doing much better than kids in packed classrooms in our local traditional public schools.

Over the years there have also been new developments, particularly those restricting the ability of our teachers and schools to take action with kids that are disruptive and tending to leave them in the classrooms.

Perhaps that’s good, perhaps that’s bad, but anecdotally I’ve heard more and more stories of the impact having just a few disruptive kids can have in a class – not only on the behavior of the rest, but also in the time it takes away from regular instruction for the teacher to deal with that. From a recent analysis done by Chalkbeat, dated June 10th 2022.

“The most famous and rigorous study of class size reduction took place in Tennessee beginning in 1985, when some kindergarten students were randomly assigned to unusually small classes through third grade. Test scores in the classes of 13 to 17 students quickly surpassed scores in the larger classes of 22 to 25. Those gains persisted for years.

Other studies in California, Minnesota, New York City, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin have shown lower class sizes boost test scores, too.

A few studies have also found other benefits, with smaller classes leading to greater classroom engagement and higher attendance. In Tennessee, researchers later found that students in smaller classes in early grades were also more likely to attend and graduate from college.”

In my district – Oceanside Unified – we have repeatedly seen when parents are actually asked what their priorities are for education spending, “reducing class sizes” is one of the highest scoring answers, usually either number 1 or 2.

So much so that the district simply removed that question from the annual LCAP surveys – the “if we don’t ask the question we don’t have to listen to the answer” approach.

The question of “where to find space for more classes” is somewhat easy.

With enrollment drops today I suspect almost every district in the county has empty classrooms. In Oceanside a survey of facilities was done in early 2020 that showed only about 66% of the facilities were in use, meaning they could likely add a significant number of classrooms without running into space issues.

The question of “how we would fund it” is just math.

Here’s some of that math for you, as an example from Oceanside Unified. The California Department of Education has not updated their class size data for districts since 2019, so we’re going to have to go with that. I suspect with enrollment drops these numbers are smaller now, but in 2019 their data showed OUSD with an average class size of 27.48 overall.

If you’d like to see the data for your own district, see the link and instructions at the bottom of this post.

According to the latest proposed budget for 2022-23, OUSD is planning for enrollment of 14,474. Assuming a class size of 27.48 that means 14,474/27.48 = 527 classes.

As of 2020 data, the median total compensation of a teacher in OUSD was $124,688. If you’d like to see what those numbers are for your own district, there’s a link below.

Also from the 2022-23 budget, the entire cost of everything the district does beyond the labor cost of employees (books, utilities, maintenance, etc) is $19,089,056.

If we allocate that overhead cost across 527 classrooms we see $19,089,056/527 = $36,246 Which means each additional classroom we add would likely cost $124,688 (teacher cost) + $36,246 (overhead cost) = $160,934.

In Oceanside, reducing class size by 1 throughout the district means adding 20 classrooms. That has a cost of $160,934 * 20 = $3.2M.

Which means reducing class size by 2 costs $6.4M, 3 costs $10.6M, etc.

Now… where do we get that money? For funding, for this example I’m just going to start with 2018, simply because I have that data readily available.

Almost all school employees have a salary schedule that provides periodic annual increases (just like “annual raises” in private industry). In most cases the schedules I’ve looked those raises are around 3 to 3.5% per year overall, about 1.5 times higher than inflation.

But that’s not enough. Unions periodically ask for (demand) bonus raises on top of that. In cases where the district won’t agree, they go to work slowdowns or strikes, holding the education of our kids hostage to their demands for more money for themselves.

And administrators – supposedly doing the hard-nosed negotiation with the unions on behalf of our kids – in turn get the same raise they give to the unions for themselves, called a “me too” raise.

In the last round in Oceanside the raise given to the teachers resulted in not only another $9,000/year for the teacher union president, but $15,000/year for the superintendent.

In Oceanside since 2018 we’ve seen three of these – March 2018, December 2019, and October 2021. These bonus raises are the largest discretionary cost in our school districts. The board approves them, and the board could, if it wanted to, decline them and insist the district allocate that money elsewhere.

Elsewhere like, for example, reducing class sizes (or increasing teacher starting salaries, improving building maintenance, providing more programs and services for kids in need or advanced kids, buying classroom supplies, etc…)

Every bonus raise not only increases the immediate cost that year but “ratchets up” the pay scale increasing annual costs for both pay and retirement benefits. Retirement (pension) contributions are a percentage of pay, so when pay goes up, so do pension contributions.

In Oceanside, the ongoing cost of the 2018 bonus raise for the certificated group AND administration (which gets automatic “me too” raises) was $4.5M per year. The bonus raise in 2019 cost $3.9M per year, and in 2021 $4.9M. Total $13.3M/year in increased cost to fund bonus raises since 2018.

That’s just the first year ongoing cost as well, doing the calculations for the natural increase in subsequent years is too complicated for this, but suffice it to say $13.3M/year is a bit of an understatement.

How much class size reduction could that buy us? Almost 4 kids per class, dropping the average class from 27.48 to 23.48, which is edging into charter school territory. And that could be allocated differently – perhaps weighting the reductions to younger grades, or providing for lower caseloads for special education teachers.

So…. When parents say “we want smaller classes” and your administration says “the state doesn’t give us enough money to reduce class sizes”? You’re welcome to laugh..

Or, you could always stand up at Board meetings and tell them you can see what they’re doing, taking candy from babies to benefit themselves, “just because they can”.

California Department of Education Class Size Data:

Select Level (usually “District”)

Select Subject Course Enrollment & Class Size Data

Average Class Size/Subject

Include results for “Select All”

Median total compensation SD County education employees: