End Class-Size Straitjacket

Eric A. Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

Could there be a silver lining in California’s unprecedented budget crisis?

The situation has made parents, teachers and school administrators anxious. Schools cannot plan effectively without knowing how much money they will have. Teachers who have already received mandatory notification that they may be laid off are properly concerned.

But there is the possibility that the budget predicament offers an escape from the costly and ineffective policy of blanket reductions in class size. Freeing our schools of this Sacramento mandate, and allowing local districts greater latitude in deciding how to spend their funds, would produce benefits far into the future.

The way the class-size-reduction policy is funded sharply curtails local decision-making. Even if a district decides that smaller classes aren’t working or it has more pressing needs, it cannot redirect spending. The money simply disappears if the school doesn’t maintain the smaller classes.


In the not-so-distant days of flush state budgets, providing extra support for school districts was politically popular. Schools had long been squeezed by efforts to deal with districts’ wealth-related disparities and by revenue limits imposed by Proposition 13. Moreover, dissatisfaction with public schools was growing. Comparisons of achievement compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that California’s students ranked near the bottom nationally.

In response, Gov. Pete Wilson, in 1997, proposed to provide state money to reduce the size of classes in kindergarten through third grade. Parents warmly embraced him. Other governors, sensing political advantage, joined the class-size-reduction movement.

President Clinton soon followed with his own plan to reduce class size, even though the federal government has little to do with either funding or local policy. California is currently pumping $1.5 billion a year into its class-size-reduction program.

Class size has been studied extensively, and the evidence, so far, suggests that student achievement has little to do with it. For example, pupil-teacher ratios have fallen nationally from 26-1 in 1960 to under 16-1 today, while performance in math, science and reading among seniors has remained essentially stagnant since 1970. More detailed statistical studies confirm that class size is not closely related to student achievement.

The one study frequently cited by proponents of smaller classes is the STAR experiment, conducted in Tennessee in the mid-1980s. The study randomly assigned K-3 students to small classes of 13 to 17 students and regular ones of 22 to 25. At the end of the initial year, kids in the smaller classes outperformed those in the larger ones. But the difference in their performance didn’t grow in subsequent years of small classes. More telling, the typical benefits were too small to justify the large expense of reducing class size by one-third.

If there are benefits associated with the 20-pupil class mandated by California law, one might expect them to be similarly small. Yet, the law requires districts to pursue the matter, under penalty of losing state money, even if alternative approaches promise better results.


For example, if a district targets class-size reduction for, say, particular teachers or specific groups of students and tries to use remaining funds to attract better teachers, it immediately forfeits small-class money. So, districts frequently look for other ways to satisfy the law, such as increasing class size in grades four through six. Absolutely no evidence suggests that this is good policy.

There is an irony here. Defenders of reducing class size are among the first to lament our inability to attract highly qualified teachers. Yet, 10 seconds of thought will reveal that reducing class size requires hiring more and more teachers, a need that often sacrifices quality for quantity.

This is especially unfortunate, because the available evidence suggests that teacher quality is where attention should be focused. The difference in benefits gained from a good teacher (even in a large class) and a mediocre one (even in a small class) is far larger than any difference produced by class size.

The unbending state regulations on class-size reduction are harmful in another way. It is appropriate for the state to declare what students should know, to measure their knowledge against clear learning standards, to reward -- or punish -- districts or schools on the basis of their students’ compliance with those standards, and to provide local districts with the information they need to do their jobs better.

But it is inappropriate for the state to tell each and every district how to do its job. The state neither has the knowledge nor enough local information to construct rules and regulations that cover the wide variety of local circumstances in a state as large and heterogeneous as California.

Defenders of state regulations contend that they prevent worst outcomes -- that is, they ensure district compliance with minimally acceptable standards. But there is not much evidence that regulations set floors on outcomes. One only has to look at published statewide test results. Instead, regulations dictating how schools should do their jobs prevent the vast majority of districts from using available funds in more productive ways. Instead, they spend to comply with the regulations, not to ensure the greatest student learning.

Yet, local districts are the ones held accountable. If they don’t make choices that lead to higher student achievement, district officials may be rebuked by locally elected boards.

Some would contend that school spending should not be cut regardless of the budget situation. But this contention seems quixotic in light of the current budgetary shortfall.

A more rational response to our budget woes would be to give local school districts the chance to make the most of the funds they have. In the short run, local districts should be given waivers from reducing class size and still receive the associated funds. In the longer run, the Legislature should relax the restrictions on how districts spend their money and instead concentrate on student outcomes.

That would be a silver lining.