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Rahm's Class Size Wars

On a recent campaign swing, Obama chastised Romney for speaking of teachers "as if he thinks these are a bunch of nameless government bureaucrats that we need to cut back on," and he said the Republican budget plan would lead to bigger class sizes. "Have you ever met a teacher who said . . . I have too few kids in my class, I want a lot more kids?" Obama said at a North Las Vegas high school.

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President Obama's campaign quickly responded with a video featuring a former Massachusetts school superintendent attacking the cuts and a fifth-grade teacher saying, "Come be in a classroom with fifth graders and tell me class size doesn't matter."

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The Emanuel administration really stepped in it again when Chicago Public Schools spokesperson Becky Carroll defended a plan to increase class sizes by dismissing concerns that students would be negatively impacted.

"It's the quality of teaching in that classroom," Carroll said. "You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed."

That's a direct repudiation of the position of not only the current president of the United States, but also the previous Democratic president - both of whom Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked for and whose policies (including smaller class sizes) he vigorously championed.

Let's take a look.

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In 1998, Clinton pledged to reduce class size in grades 1-3 to 18 students nationwide.

Gene Sperling, head of the President's National Economic Council, said Mr. Clinton was proposing $7.5 billion in child care spending over five years, $7.3 billion over five years to reduce class size and $5 billion for school construction.

"If the Republicans want to have a fight about education, we stand ready to defend our schools, our parents and our children,'' said Rahm Emanuel, one of the senior advisers.

In 2009, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former CPS superintendent, used a speech at the National Press Club to defend the administration's stimulus spending, including dollars used to maintain class sizes. Emanuel, then the president's chief of staff, was one of the main architects of the stimulus bill.

[W]hat the stimulus dollars did was basically stave off what would have been an education catastrophe. We would have lost a generation of children. So it was a massive investment, but it was absolutely critical. And we had to do it. We had to do it quickly.

We can't afford to go backward. We have to go forward. And so, class size would have gone from 25 to 40. If we would have laid off social workers and counselors and librarians, that would have been horrible for our children here and around the country. So we had to put that out there.

(To be fair, Duncan said in 2011 that "class size has been a sacred cow and I think we need to take it on.")

In 2011, Rahm defended raising property taxes in part based on maintaining class size:

Emanuel, who had promised not to raise property taxes for city government, last week defended CPS' decision to seek more tax revenue from residents. He said he was OK with the school tax increase because it was being requested as the district makes significant cuts in spending.

On Thursday, city schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard explained what went into that decision at Chicago Live!, the Tribune's stage and radio show.

"First thing, we did everything we could to scrub as much as we could from the existing budget, such as reorganization of central office," Brizard said. "So nearly $400 million we found pushing and pulling for efficiencies in the system, and we looked at using reserves before we went to taxpayers. We got to a decision point that if we don't do this, we're going to have to increase class size, lay off a lot of teachers, cut programs we know are dear to our parents. So we looked at investing in the right places."

In case you don't think Brizard's message was a coordinated one, this was Rahm himself two months earlier:

"First, on my [city] budget, we held the line on property taxes," Emanuel said. "Second, this is $28 for the whole year. Third, it protects the investments of early childhood education, class size, longer school day and parental choice."

In 2012, Rahm used class size as a political weapon against Mitt Romney.

Obama political aides in Chicago criticized Romney for seeking advantage and pointed to his repeated campaign statements that class size does not affect a student's education.

"Playing political games with local disputes won't help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Emanuel, Obama's former White House chief of staff, was more direct in dismissing Romney.

"While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here," Emanuel told reporters. "I don't give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass - or whatever - the president."

And here's Obama:

On a recent campaign swing, Obama chastised Romney for speaking of teachers "as if he thinks these are a bunch of nameless government bureaucrats that we need to cut back on," and he said the Republican budget plan would lead to bigger class sizes. "Have you ever met a teacher who said . . . I have too few kids in my class, I want a lot more kids?" Obama said at a North Las Vegas high school.

And also from the 2012 presidential campaign:

Though education has not been a major focus in the presidential campaign, the charged issue of class size was injected into the race on Tuesday as Mitt Romney said that while governor of Massachusetts, he was able to do more with less during an economic downturn.

He repeated assertions made during the Republican primary campaign that slightly larger classes - a result of cuts in Massachusetts state aid to schools in 2003 and 2004 - were not as important in student learning as the quality of teachers.

Sound familiar?

President Obama's campaign quickly responded with a video featuring a former Massachusetts school superintendent attacking the cuts and a fifth-grade teacher saying, "Come be in a classroom with fifth graders and tell me class size doesn't matter."

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Also from that story:

Research from the 1980s showed students in early grades in classes of 13 to 17 performed significantly better than students in classes of 22 to 25. Many states passed laws limiting class size.

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To that end, I pulled some data to see how CPS class sizes compared to other districts.

1. Class Size Around The World.

"For public schools, the number of pupils per FTE teacher - that is, the pupil/teacher ratio - declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 17.9 in 1985. After 1985, the public school pupil/teacher ratio continued to decline, reaching 17.2 in 1989. After a period of relative stability during the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, the ratio declined from 17.3 in 1995 to 16.0 in 2000. Decreases have continued since then, and the public school pupil/teacher ratio was 15.4 in 2009. By comparison, the pupil/teacher ratio for private schools was estimated at 12.5 in 2009. The average class size in 2007-08 was 20.0 pupils for public elementary schools and 23.4 pupils for public secondary schools."

2. Teacher Trends.

"The number of public school FTE teachers has increased by a larger percentage than the number of public school students over the past 10 years, resulting in declines in the pupil/teacher ratio. In fall 2001, the number of public school pupils per teacher was 15.9, compared with a projected number of 15.2 public school pupils per teacher in fall 2011."

3. Trend Reversing?

"The national ratio of students to their teachers fell between 1980 and 2008, from 17.6 to 15.8 students per public school teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Because the statistics count special education and other specialized teachers who normally have much smaller classes than regular teachers do, the U.S. Department of Education estimates the current average class size at more like 25 students. That number is likely to rise, given states' and districts' financial constraints, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last month at a Washington forum.

"Nearly all the states that have changed their class-size laws since 2008 have relaxed restrictions, in many cases specifically to ease districts' budget burdens, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States."

4. New York City Class Size Report.

5. On Bill Gates, Class Size and American Parents.

"The problem is that American parents are concerned not only with their children's test scores, but also with their day to day experiences at school. Parents want their children to have meaningful personal relationships with educators--the sorts of life-changing experiences many of us remember fondly when we think back on our favorite teachers, whether they helped us score higher on a chemistry exam or just got us through a difficult time at home."

6. Class Sizes Could Increase For Special Education Students.

"Special education advocates are up in arms about a state proposal to eliminate class size caps for special education rooms and let districts decide what percentage of a 'general education' class can be students with disabilities.The rule changes would leave the state without maximum class sizes based on a child's disability for the first time since 1975."

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See also: The [Wednesday] Papers.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on March 7, 2013


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