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Will Our Federal Government Renounce Their Proposal to Increase Class Size?

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The Obama administration has proposed that in next year's education budget, 25 percent of the funds to reduce class size or keep teachers on staff be diverted to a competitive grant program to create and expand "new pathways" to teaching -- e.g. to help fund organizations like Teach For America.

That would mean a cut of more than $600 million that, if approved, would lead to even larger classes in schools throughout the country next year. Senate Appropriations Committee will have its say on this issue next week when it considers the FY13 Labor, Health and Education funding bill. Recently, a group of corporate education reform groups, let by 50-CAN and joined by other organizations including Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst and Teach for America, sent a letter to Senate leaders, urging them to adopt the president's proposal.

Over two-thirds of school districts have already seen significant increases in class size in recent years because of state budget cuts, and thousands of teachers have been laid off -- despite the fact that providing smaller classes is one of the top priorities of parents for their children, year after year, in national polls and surveys.

In states like New York and California, this could mean from $50 to $68 million slashed from the Title II funds now available that districts can use, at their own discretion, either for class size reduction or for professional development. (See the NEA's chart, showing how many millions your state will lose, if the president's proposal is adopted.)

Not only is class size reduction one of the top priorities of parents and educators as shown in numerous surveys and polls, it is one of only a handful of reforms cited by the Institute of Education Sciences that have been proven to work through "rigorous evidence."

Right now, districts use almost half of these Title II funds to keep class sizes as low as possible. Cutting these funds to create yet another competitive grant program that will be judged by the U.S. Department of Education will restrict the ability of districts to use resources to best suit their own needs and priorities. This appears to contradict the oft-claimed goal of both the president and Secretary Duncan to maximize local "flexibility" in revising NCLB, and their ostensible desire to get the federal government "out of the way" in mandating the use of federal education funds.

As had been pointed out previously, President Obama sends his own daughters to a private school, Sidwell Friends, that features small classes and very little standardized testing. It is unfortunate that he appears not to respect the desire of public school parents to provide some of the same advantages for their own children.

In New Zealand, when the federal government recently proposed an initiative to increase class size and re-allocate the funds towards unspecified "teacher quality" programs, the public outrage was immediate. As a result, the Prime Minister John Key just announced that he would not make this change. Why? As he put it, it had become "blindingly obvious" parents would not stand the policy.

Key added: "The government has listened to parents. What's been fairly obvious over the last ten days is that parents are not comfortable in funding any increase in professional training for teachers through any increase in class sizes."

Let me repeat that: they "listened to parents." What an original idea. Perhaps it's time for our federal government to start doing the same.