Parents and grandparents of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District know that smaller classroom sizes would mean more attention to the social and academic needs of the children they love. But in elementary, middle and high schools across the district, class sizes have not met state or regional goals for more than 25 years.
In the current contract between L.A. Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles, there is a chart that establishes maximum class sizes. At most grade levels, the maximum hovers at around 36 students. But in the 1990s, during a period of deep recession, teachers agreed to Section 1.5 of their contract, which allows the district to ignore these maximums.
Although teachers negotiated a rule in 2014 that requires the district to give the union a “notice of intent” to use Section 1.5, write a rationale for ignoring class-size requirements and give teachers an opportunity to dissent from the rationale provided, L.A. Unified can and does still unilaterally implement whatever class size it chooses.
Today, classes of 45 students or more are not uncommon in most secondary schools. (This excludes kindergarten through third-grade classes, which receive state funding specifically for class-size reduction.)
Ask any parent if he or she would rather have his or her child in a class with 45 students or 30 students.
If the district truly wants its students to learn more, it should get rid of Section 1.5 and immediately begin hiring 2,000 new teachers to meet the class-size goals that are already laid out in the current contract.
This would cost $200 million more each year. That may sound like a lot, but the district has a minimum of $1.8 billion in reserve.
Opposition to class-size reduction comes from the top. When I chaired the Assembly Education Committee, lobbyists would often come in and argue that the cost of reducing class sizes in California’s public schools was simply too high.
When I asked these lobbyists where their own children attended school, many if not all of them would respond that they sent their children to private schools — some to schools where tuition could cost as much as $45,000 a year and classrooms would have as few as a dozen students.
In other words, although they paid considerable tuition rates for their own kids to benefit from small classes, they considered it perfectly acceptable for children who live in poverty — 80% of the LAUSD student population — to be relegated to the third-largest class sizes in America. Really?
There is also some quiet opposition coming from a few well placed charter-school advocates. Why? Because if the district were to reduce class sizes by hiring 2,000 additional teachers, it would need to provide 2,000 classrooms to those new teachers — classrooms that some charter-school advocates are eyeing for themselves.
The Board of Education at LAUSD needs to put its students first. Though it claims to do so at nearly every meeting and on seemingly all of its printed materials, its claims are often empty rhetoric.
It is common sense that smaller classes make for better learning environments and higher grades and test scores. It’s also well documented.
A 2016 study conducted by William J. Mathis at the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center showed that smaller classes correlated with higher graduation rates, student engagement and self-esteem. Mathis also found that the positive effects of smaller classes were twice as large for poor and minority students.
In conclusion, Mathis called for class sizes of 15 to 18 students and argued that, although reducing class sizes can be expensive, “it could prove to be the most cost-effective policy in the long run.”
Ask any parent if he or she would rather have his or her child in a class with 45 students or 30 students. Likewise, ask any teacher how reducing class size would affect students’ achievements. All will acknowledge that class size matters.
We need to stop blaming teachers for low student test scores and start providing the resources they need to close the achievement gap. L.A. Unified needs to put students first.
Jackie Goldberg was a classroom teacher for 17 years. She represented northeast Los Angeles neighborhoods on the LAUSD School Board, on the Los Angeles City Council and in the California State Assembly, where she chaired the Education Committee.