Class Size Debate Gets New Legs

high school students in classroom

In a June 2016 policy brief, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado renewed a long-standing debate: Does class size matter? The NEPC’s answer—an emphatic “yes”—should come as no surprise to many parents and teachers, but the Center’s supporting evidence for its position comes from some unusual vantage points that go beyond the basic assumption that having fewer kids in a class brings about a better learning environment. 

The NEPC argues that lowering class sizes to an optimal number of 15 students per classroom actually makes good economic sense. At face value, this seems counterintuitive to how schools currently operate—on average, class sizes are around the 21:1 mark (a number that varies from state to state, according to research from the National Center for Education Statistics). 

Reducing the number of students in a class isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. In 2014, Northwestern University professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach was quoted in an article about whether or not reducing class sizes is financially “worth it.” Schanzenbach, who describes herself as an economist, says the dollar-for-dollar answer is no because incorporating class size caps into education policy—as Washington state did in 2012—can be very expensive upfront. Indeed, Washington’s efforts were said to come with a multi-billion-dollar price tag. Florida also passed class size legislation in 2012, to the estimated tune of $20 billion. These costs may seem unfathomable to many state lawmakers tasked with funding expansive pre-K to college public education programs using limited—and often shifting— revenue streams. For example, California’s longstanding attempt to keep K–3 class sizes below 25 offers a clear look at how state budget fluctuations impact the success of such policy initiatives.

Still, the NEPC’s recent policy paper maintains that class size reduction "sticker shock" should not prevent states from committing to this education strategy. According to economist Alan Krueger, whose research is used as supporting evidence by the NEPC, reducing class size “most benefits minority and disadvantaged students,” leading to a greater investment in these students’ lives. In fact, Krueger has “estimated that the economic gains of smaller classes in the early grades outweighed the costs two to one.” 

The NEPC class size brief also cites a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper that analyzed school funding increases in a number of states from 1970–2010. This research found that spending more money on lowering class sizes—as well as increasing teacher salaries and extending the school year—reaped later economic rewards, such as a nearly four-point reduction in the rate of adult poverty and an overall increase in wages. 

Further, the NEPC’s class size argument puts forth the idea that lowering class sizes to the optimum level of 15 students leads to “gains in college entrance exams ... especially among minority students.” An increase in the number of students going to college could lead to a better prepared, more financially independent workforce whose higher earnings would translate into greater tax revenue for state budgets.

While skepticism surrounding the benefits and costs of reducing class sizes is well known and worth considering, the NEPC’s recent class size policy brief also merits close examination. After all, if one of the stated federal-level education policy priorities is to increase the achievement of marginalized students of color, then putting students into smaller classes makes a lot of sense—or, as the NEPC has stated, “Money saved today by increasing class sizes will likely result in additional substantial social and educational costs in the future."

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