Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Overcrowding at Longfellow Elementary

Parents at Longfellow Elementary are concerned about the school’s unusually high class sizes, and have started a petition to bring the issue to the attention of the school board and superintendent. Some Longfellow fifth-and-sixth-grade classrooms, which are smallish rooms to begin with, have thirty-four kids in them. By comparison, my daughter’s fifth-and-sixth-grade class at Hoover, a few blocks down the road, has twenty-five students in it. Here’s the petition. From the Press-Citizen’s coverage:
“I feel as a parent, as someone who’s volunteered in the classroom every year, there’s a level of stress in the building that I haven’t felt,” said [Maeve] Clarke, the mother of a Longfellow second-grader. “There’s an overemphasis, out of necessity, of focusing on being quiet, staying in line, at the expense of focusing on learning.”
A few observations:

First, I support the petition. Thirty-four kids is way too many for one classroom, and it’s hard to understand why one school should have such a disproportionate number of large classes. Unfortunately, smaller class sizes, like those at Hoover, haven’t prevented the additional stress on the kids and the overemphasis on being quiet and staying in line, because of PBIS. Longfellow is just now in its second year of using PBIS.

Second, the superintendent points out that class size is driven in large part by the legislature’s determination of annual “allowable growth” for school district spending. It seems at least worth asking why state law should prevent a school district from choosing, through its elected representatives, to raise and spend more than the state-mandated amount of money on public education.

Third, if the overcrowding gets any worse, Longfellow parents might want to try what Detroit parents tried.


Karen W said...

Chris--I've been thinking about your question about allowable growth and found this at the Iowa Department of Education website:

"In making its decisions, the [School Budget Review C]ommittee is required by Code to take into account the intent of chapter 257 in Code (school foundation formula) to equalize educational opportunity, to provide a good education for all the children of Iowa, to provide property tax relief, to decrease the percentage of school costs paid from property taxes and to provide reasonable control of school costs."

So--an effort to create statewide equity in funding may be driving some local inequity in class sizes?

Chris said...

Karen – Thanks for the comment. Here’s the clickable link.

Although I’d like see real local control over educational policy issues, I don’t believe that school funding should be a purely local matter. I think the federal and state governments do have a big role to play in redistributing tax money to promote equitable funding among districts. And I’m all in favor of shifting the funding sources away from property taxes and to progressive income taxes instead.

So I realize that there’s a possible equity argument for having state-mandated funding levels. I don’t really buy the argument, though. For one thing, my guess is that in practice, the state control of funding functions mainly to keep overall spending on education down – that the Governor sees his main task as “holding the line on taxes,” not as ensuring equity.

Moreover, I don’t think the state should prevent a school district from choosing to spend more than the state-mandated amount if it is willing and able to and chooses to do so democratically. Does that mean more affluent districts will be able to spend more on their schools than poorer ones? Yes. But that’s true anyway. Any town that is affluent enough to spend significantly more than the state allows will eventually be a town that spawns a lot of private schools, and I don’t see how that helps equity or public education.

How about something like this: if a district chose to spend more than the state-mandated amount, some portion of the extra would be put in a fund that benefitted less affluent districts?

Karen W said...

Without having given it much thought, my first response is to wonder if we might just end up with PBIS and fifteen minute lunches at three times the cost?

Chris said...

Ha -- point taken. When I see what the school system does with its money, I get less enthused about spending more. But (unlike Jason Glass), I don't believe that class size doesn't matter. I think better teacher salaries would help, too.

Moreover, if a school district wants to waste its money, what business does the state have stopping it? Why do we assume that state and federal authorities will make better decisions?

KD said...

I haven't paid a lot of attention to the overcrowding issue this year. In past years I don't think the district has been truthful about the real student-teacher ratios at our school.

There has only been one year where I thought the student teacher ratios were low.

If I had my way, I'd like to see lower student teacher ratios in the lower grades, particularly in the schools that have more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Doris said...

Interesting conversation. Chris, you made this suggestion: "How about something like this: if a district chose to spend more than the state-mandated amount, some portion of the extra would be put in a fund that benefitted less affluent districts?" If I'm hearing you correctly, are you suggesting that only affluent districts would be likely to tax themselves at a higher-than-mandated rate to support local education? If so, I would want to question that assumption, I think. It seems to me that there are less-than-affluent communities out there that would be willing to dig pretty deep to support local schools, but this plan you propose would end up being a disincentive.

One reason I think you are wrong is that I'm a product of that kind of non-affluent but pro-school small town (in KY--where Jason Glass was educated). When the state legislature basically took over KY K-12 education sometime around 1990, they implemented a funding system that had the effect of rewarding districts that might well have been equally non-affluent to my own, but where the commitment to funding local education had not historically been as strong. Do you see what I mean? The districts that had historically taxed themselves at relatively high rates to support local schools received none of the state money windfall. So the reforms generated a lot of ill will because they weren't seen as equitable.

I'm not remotely against efforts to distribute resources equitably, then, and I'm sure the story from KY is more complicated than I am here conveying, but if I understand you correctly your plan would leave open the possibility that a relatively non-affluent district populated by people who were willing to tax themselves fairly heavily to support local schools might end up having to give some of that money away to another district that has a similar economic profile but a less generous attitude toward its local schools. That seems like a potential problem.

Chris said...

Doris -- Those are all good points, and I was really just thinking out loud. More along that line: Maybe the further above-median the household income of that district is, the more they'd be expected to spread a portion of the money around? And if the district was below-median to begin with, they could hang onto all of the extra money they devote to education?

I don't know that I feel strongly even about the above-median towns having to spread some of the additional money around, but it would at least be a compromise solution if people are concerned about departing from perfect per-pupil equity.

Chris said...

Here is Maeve Clarke's op-ed in today's Press-Citizen. Again, one of her points is that, because of the overcrowding, Longfellow has become a place "where being quiet and well-behaved takes precedence over the development of all the other critical social and educational skills."

I don't mean to get into a comparison between Hoover and Longfellow -- Longfellow may well be even more behavior-obsessed than Hoover, because of the class size issue -- but those complaints will sure sound familiar to readers of this blog.

Chris said...

KD -- At the school board candidate forums in September, I submitted the question: "Is thirty-four students too many for one elementary school classroom? If so, what sacrifices would you make to bring that number down?" Unfortunately, the moderator asked the first part, but not the second part. So all the candidates basically said, Oh yes, that's too many.

One thing the candidates all seemed to support was concentrating resources where they are most needed (as opposed to simply distributing them on a per-student basis). This was offered as a kind of alternative to gerrymandering the boundaries to achieve a greater socio-economic balance in each school. I don't know whether that was supposed to mean having smaller class sizes in schools with more struggling kids, or having relatively equal class sizes but devoting additional staff to give one-on-one attention to particular students in those schools, or something else.

In any event, it would surprise me if Longfellow were considered a prime candidate for taking larger classes, in the interests of devoting more resources to another school.

Karen W said...

More thoughts on allowable growth: I wonder how allowing districts to choose to spend more per pupil would affect open enrollment in Iowa. Could affluent districts convert their public schools into de facto private schools by, say, increasing spending by $5,000 over state mandated spending and then limiting open enrollment to families who can pay that $5,000 difference out of pocket?

Maybe this seems so unlikely that it isn’t worth worrying about and I suppose it raises the question of whether open enrollment should be part of the public school program at all. Even so, I hate to see those prosecutions of homeless parents for enrolling their kids in public school and wonder how much of the thinking behind those prosecutions relates to funding disparities between districts and having more of the per pupil funding coming from local property taxes?

Once we decide to spend more than the state mandated spending, do we lose a feeling that public school districts should be inclusive institutions?

Karen W said...

I’d love to see more public discussion about what equity means in relation to public schools. Does it mean every child gets exactly the same (spending, class sizes, educational programming) or a guaranteed minimum but it is okay for some kids to get something more or different (higher spending, smaller class sizes, special programs that not every child in the district/state gets)?

I think too often the underlying assumptions people are making when they say they support equity/equitable distribution and the tradeoffs involved go unspoken. What are we trying to equalize--spending per pupil, class size, or outcomes (across the district or across the state)? If we make class sizes equal across the district, have we deprived struggling learners of resources they need to succeed? Is it really fair to require one group of six-year-olds (no matter how “advantaged”) to endure over-crowded conditions so that other six-year-olds can have a much smaller class size? (Or eight-year-olds or eleven-year-olds, for that matter).

Maybe if we talked more openly about what specifically we are trying to equalize and the trade offs involved we might get policies that better balance all of the interests involved.

Chris said...

Karen -- Again, it's possible to anticipate problems with allowing individual districts to spend more than the state-mandated amount, but I think most of them could be addressed. There's no reason to allow districts to charge tuition as a condition of open enrollment. I see many more problems with having the state dictate what districts can do than with giving local districts more autonomy.

I totally agree with your point about transparency. There must be a lot of tradeoffs going on that affect class size. Many of them are probably justifiable, but there's no reason they shouldn't be openly acknowledged and discussed.

Doris said...

Hi, Karen and Chris. Great post up above about the need to think through what we mean by equity when it comes to the nuts and bolts of issues such as class size, Karen. And, Chris, I also take your point about how bringing the decision-making power closer to home might help. But there is also the background factor that sometimes the reason the "feds" get involved is real problems at the local level--the warehousing of disabled students, etc.

Speaking of which, this is off-topic, but if any of your readers has information about the claim made on this blog a while back by one poster to the effect that such warehousing is going on in Iowa City, I'd really like to learn more.

Chris said...

Doris -- You're point about federal involvement probably has some truth to it. But infantilizing all school districts because there are problems in a few reminds me of a certain behavioral rewards program . . .

As for the warehousing -- can you remind me of which post that comment appeared on?

Chris said...

Sorry, I was running out the door, and that last comment was too flippant. My point is just that I don’t see that as a reason to completely federalize (or state-ize) school policymaking, and certainly not as a reason to prevent school districts from spending more than what the state permits.

And why does everyone assume that the federal or state governments’ decisions will necessarily be better than the local districts’ decisions? Everything I see makes me think the opposite will often be true.

Doris said...

No offense taken. I don't think federal or state government would necessarily be better than local control; I think it often can be and is worse. My point is just that there do need to be mechanisms in place to protect the least powerful interest groups (for lack of a better term) in a given district. To have that concern is by no means to argue for complete federalization or state-ization. It's just to say that local control can suck pretty mightily if the locals who are in control are not people whose views you support, and if you lack the wherewithal either to dethrone them or to move to a different place where the people in charge adhere to values/politics that are more in line with your own views.

Oops--this time it's me who has to run. Sorry about any typos.

Chris said...

I can’t totally disagree, and I’m not against all federal laws about education (and I’m certainly not against having Constitutional protections – for example, against discrimination -- that would constrain what local districts could do). But at the same time, it’s hard to know how we can have federal or state intervention only when we want it, and not when we don’t.

I’m sure that the creators of No Child Left Behind justified it on the grounds that states and localities were disserving the kids by not forcing schools to focus exclusively on test scores and by not setting harsh penalties for teachers and schools that failed to raise scores. I think it was a disaster. So yeah, the federal government can protect powerless kids from the localities, but who can protect them from the federal government?

I know the federal and state governments have the power to intervene, but superior power doesn’t necessarily imply superior wisdom. On the whole, I think local districts are far more likely to be responsive to the people (parents and teachers) who are most inclined to treat kids humanely. I just want to persuade people that, most of the time – way more than we currently recognize – it’s a good idea to let local districts do what they want to do.

Doris said...

I think the thread where the issue of warehousing of disabled students in Iowa City got raised was the one about using candy as a reward for PBIS drawings. Remember? The commenter was complaining that candy (Skittles, in specific) was a trivial thing to worry about?

Chris said...

Yes -- That was commenter "Hoover" on this post, who referred to "special needs students being sent to warehouse classrooms on Capital Street and 1st Avenue." "Hoover" did not respond to follow-up questions at the time. Does anyone out there have more information?

Doris said...

Yes, that's the post I had in mind. So that can't be an allusion to one location at the intersection of Capitol Street and 1st Avenue, right? Because those streets don't intersect, do they? Is it an allusion to Tate High School, which is on Mall Drive over near First Avenue?

Maybe it was just a throwaway comment geared toward making people who worry about candy look self-indulgent.

Chris said...

You're right that those streets do not intersect, so maybe "Hoover" was referring to two different buildings. I have no idea what it's a reference to. The only school district building I'm finding on Capitol Street is 840 S. Capitol, which appears to be the home of the district's "Library Program." I don't know what the First Avenue reference is.

Does anyone out there know what this commenter is talking about?