Ask an educator, and they probably will tell you they envision teaching fewer students.
Consult a crystal ball, though, and you’re not likely to see such a future, say education experts.
Arizona — which the National Education Association reported this month as maintaining its second-tohighest ratio of students to certified staff ranking in the nation — is unlikely to be able to afford lower class sizes soon as the state and school districts wrangle with budget deficits.
But, as educators will also tell you, the number of students in any one classroom remains among the top priorities for parents.
"My organization’s policy is that class sizes should be around 15 to 20 students," said Penny Kotterman, president of the Arizona Education Association.
But, then, she added, there are the economics of the situation. "The more personnel you have, the less money and the wider distribution of your funding. So, as school budgets have been either depressed, decreased or are not growing as quickly as real costs go up, there is less and less money to pay even the average cost-ofliving raises to teachers and other school employees, and less money for reduction of class sizes. Class sizes is one of those things that has a real price tag to it."
The American Educational Research Association recently released a study estimating it would cost $558,000 in teacher salaries alone to reduce a 25-student class to 17 students in a single 1,000-student school, figuring a teacher salary at $31,000, excluding benefits or any costs for placing portable classrooms. To reduce a 30-student class to 17 students, given the same conditions, would cost $744,000, the association reported.
There are tools school districts use to help reduce class sizes. The Arizona Office of the Auditor General reports that schools in 48 school districts individually chose to spend a portion of the Proposition 301 sales-tax money targeted for the "classroom site fund" to hire additional teachers or aides to reduce class sizes. Districts also can ask voters to approve a budget override that allows the district to collect 5 percent over its approved revenue limit to fund education improvements for kindergarten through third grade, which could include hiring teachers or aides.
"We need to lower class sizes, but it’s expensive," said Tom Horne, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction. "We need to do it when the economy is better and revenue is up."
Patti Whitehead, a parent in the Scottsdale Unified School District, challenged parents to push the lawmakers to find a funding source.
"Sometimes I wish parents would realize the need to pressure the Legislature to fund education instead of having us parents pick up the slack," she said, referring to parents groups in Scottsdale planning fund-raisers to help alleviate class sizes.
Typically, school districts set a bar for the highest class size they will permit, and hire teachers once enrollment in a class goes over that limit. If the ceiling is passed too far into the school year, aides are often hired instead of splitting a class. In Scottsdale, teachers can opt to receive bonuses for the additional work of teaching more students than typically allowed in their contracts.
That means, when enrollment raises to a level a school district decides it can afford another teacher based on its approved salary limits, children are moved into a new classroom.
At Aztec Elementary School in Scottsdale, a new teacher of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes just began to transition students into her class.
"It’s a hard thing for kids, teachers and principals," said Aztec principal Tom Neuman. "It’s a tough decision to make. The purpose, of course, is to make the best choice for all the kids in the new classroom as well as making good choices for those remaining in current classes."
In the Gilbert Unified School District, the state’s fastest growing district, it’s not uncommon for classes to be added during the year. A sixth-grade class was added at the end of the first school quarter at Towne Meadows Elementary School.
"It was nine weeks getting to know kids and then they were going to a different classroom," said teacher Kevin Currie. But he said teaching is easier now that his class shrunk from 32 to 26 students when Michelle Gabbin was hired to join the staff.
Gabbin said she spent the first day with her new mix of students determining where to start, as students from different classes had completed different lessons.
While some students were "a little sad," most said they appreciated the smaller class that allows them to do more group activities.
"You can walk around the room a lot better," said 11-yearold Lexi Heninger. Shelby Hall, 12, said it has been easier to get answers to questions.
At Jacobson Elementary School in the Chandler Unified School District, there is no more room for additional classes. So when the sixthgrade classes surpassed the district’s size goal in the mid-20s, hitting an average of 30.5 students, aides were hired to provide more individual attention, said principal Rich Doyle.
"Any time you get extra bodies in there, it definitely helps," he said. "Ideally, I think everybody in America would like classes down to 20 or 22 kids. But with a district like Chandler that is growing so quickly, it’s just not feasible."
Despite hard times that have hit much of the nation, some states have approved plans to lower class sizes. The Arizona Education Association points to a recent Florida measure that mandates a steady reduction in class sizes through 2010, which is anticipated to cost at least $20 billion. It includes building more schools and hiring staff to accommodate class sizes of no more than 18 in kindergartenthrough third-grade, no more than 22 students in fourththrough eighth-grade and no more than 25 in higher grades.
Joe O’Reilly, Mesa Unified School District’s executive director for student achievement support, said lowering class sizes to a level that noticeably would affect test scores is a serious step that needs to be planned well, especially in an age when districts have new hiring and testing standards to meet.
O’Reilly said California found itself unable to find enough certified teachers or keep up with classrooms needed when it passed a similar class-size initiative half a decade ago.
"They did it statewide on a very large scale and it caused some problems," he said. "The challenge with class size is, one, you’d have to lower the class sizes significantly to have an effect on achievement. And the cost of having enough classrooms — imagine doubling the classrooms. Then you have to find highly qualified teachers to fill every one of those classrooms."