Firing teachers is a bad idea

Firing teachers is a bad idea

The right's absurd and contradictory arguments about school class size

Expect to hear a lot in upcoming months about class size.

As in: raising the number of kids in each public school classroom North Carolina.  

As in: firing thousands of teachers to help close the budget shortfall.

The likely source of a lot of this talk will be the right-wing think tanks that clearly aspire to serve as the de facto policy staff for the new conservative leadership teams in the General Assembly. Here's one of the main right-wing talking heads in a recent column casually explaining how state education funding could be slashed by 15%:

"Save around $1.7 billion in the state's education budget by reducing non-teaching positions in public schools by about 30 percent, rolling back recent class-size reductions, and focusing state higher-education funding on undergraduate instruction while raising tuition and private fundraising."

Did you get that? "Rolling back recent class-size reductions" is a prettified way of saying "firing teachers."

In many ways, this is nothing new. Far right groups like the Locke Foundation have been attempting to peddle the nonsensical idea that class size is irrelevant for years. But now, of course, things are a little more serious. With a $4 billion budget gap staring the state in the face and new conservative majorities running things in the House and the Senate, some people in positions of actual influence may begin to listen to this kind of malarkey.  

(As an aside, it would be great if some of these people were forced to go into a randomly selected public school and identify the three out of ten "non-teaching positions," – i.e. counselors, custodians, nurses, librarians, etc – that should be eliminated. Then it would be great to give them a mop and a broom and ask them to clean up the cafeteria after lunch).

What parents think

Interestingly, the idea that raising class sizes is a bad idea does not seem to have seeped through to the parents whose "choices" the right-wing groups profess to care so passionately about. In fact, in 2007, a Locke Foundation report extolling the supposed wonders of charter schools had this to say:

"On the question of why parents choose a particular charter school for their children, Fedewa [the Superintendent of Schools for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh who had conducted a survey] reports that ‘Over 75 percent of responding parents indicated that school size was an important reason when selecting a charter school for their children.' Likewise, a question asking parents to compare their child's current charter school with the school the child would otherwise be attending revealed that parents perceived school size and class size to be better in charter schools than district schools."

The report went on:

"Charter schools are exempt from the state's class-size requirements. Nevertheless, charter schools instinctively keep class sizes low. Charters have identical class sizes as district schools in grades 1-3 but lower class sizes in kindergarten and grades 4-8. Smaller class sizes in the middle school grades may provide an advantage to students who attend charter schools, as struggling students begin to fall behind at this stage of their schooling. Smaller classes may also contribute to parents' observation that students receive more individualized attention and extra help in a charter school than the district school the child would otherwise attend."

To which just about anyone with a modicum of common sense would reply: "no kidding!"

Although the author goes on to attempt to cover his tracks with a weak statement that "there is no consistent evidence that smaller class sizes increase student performance" the obvious truth of the parents' perceptions in the survey speak with great power. Parents know through observation and experience that kids in smaller classes often do better in myriad ways. They also know that less crowded schools make for better results overall. That's why many parents choose less crowded private and charter schools for their kids when given the option.

Reality Check

Parents' common sense perceptions on this issue are, not surprisingly, backed up by volumes of research. Is the connection always direct and completely predictable? No – of course not.

Some studies indicate that lower class sizes are more important in earlier grades, while the benefits are actually realized more in later grades. Some research points to the benefits that extend to other areas besides classroom performance like socialization, health, access to enrichment activities, etc…. Some studies highlight the benefits for overall school health and stability. Others point to the benefits for teacher happiness and longevity. Obviously, smaller differences in size generally make for less obvious benefits.

And, of course, there are dozens of other factors that can intervene and prevent smaller classes from having their desired effect in specific situations.  Small class sizes will clearly do less good in crumbling schools staffed with young, overmatched teachers attempting to reach poor kids from dysfunctional families. Class size is only one part of a complicated jigsaw puzzle.     

On the whole, however, it is an extremely important part. And it is ridiculous to pretend that smaller classes are not worth pursuing or that we should cavalierly discard the progress of recent decades on this front in order to avoid a small amount of short-term sacrifice from those with the ability to pay a few more tax dollars.  

The real story?

So why does the right (or at least a segment of the hard core ideologues) stick to its passionate push to fire teachers and cram more kids into fewer classrooms? While some true believers are no doubt sincere in their arguments, there is reason to think there's more to the story.

Especially in light of the longstanding hostility of some key conservative figures to the very idea of public schools (and their concomitant infatuation with the idea of charters, vouchers, parochial schools and a generally privatized education system) this bizarre and illogical opposition to smaller class sizes is enough to make one suspect a darker motive.

Over the past year, as the fight for the future of the Wake County schools has been joined, more and more critics of the conservative school board majority have reported the distinct impression that it's almost as if some of the right-wing forces behind the move to re-segregate the system want it to fail – thereby paving the way for general dismantling of a system that they see as "socialistic" and "collectivist." That one of the majority's key supporters owns a growing and ambitious chain of private schools that sees himself as a competitor to the public schools lends credence to this theory. That the school board chair himself has served on the chain's board of directors adds even more.

Whatever the ultimate motivation of the conservatives promoting larger class sizes, however, – be it genuine confusion or an ulterior plot to promote privatization – the fact remains that their recommendations are wrong, destructive and in defiance of common sense.

Let's hope state leaders listen to parents and leave the recommendations of the market fundamentalist ideologues in the shadowy margins where they belong.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.