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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Room to shrink

Initiative calls for reduced class sizes; opponents fault lack of funding mechanism

Bambi Howe, a kindergarten teacher at Madison Elementary School, gives a high-five to Averee Bonwell after a writing assignment during class earlier this month. Howe had morning and afternoon class sizes of 27 students each before teaching 20 students in an all-day class this year. (Dan Pelle)
Bambi Howe, a kindergarten teacher at Madison Elementary School, gives a high-five to Averee Bonwell after a writing assignment during class earlier this month. Howe had morning and afternoon class sizes of 27 students each before teaching 20 students in an all-day class this year. (Dan Pelle)

Washington has invested millions of dollars to shrink class sizes in kindergarten and first grade; an initiative on the November ballot calls for fewer students in all grades by 2019.

Initiative 1351 sets maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade at 17 students in most classrooms and 15 children in schools in low-income areas. Classes in the fourth through 12th grades would have fewer than 25 students per class, or 22 in low-income schools.

The state Office of Financial Management estimates I-1351 would add a total of $4.7 billion to the cost of K-12 education in the state through 2019. As many as 17,000 teachers and school support staff would need to be hired to comply with the class-size mandates. “The point is that we get more adults working with fewer children as soon as possible,” said Mary Howes, the initiative’s sponsor and a former teacher. “I’m not confident the Legislature is going to fully fund our schools, and if this passes, Washington’s class sizes will be around the national average.”

Intitiative sponsors say if it’s approved, class sizes would be even smaller than what’s called for by the state Supreme Court in a recent decision requiring the state Legislature to increase education funding significantly by 2018.

Opponents believe I-1351 would result in higher taxes.

“We all want smaller class sizes, but there’s no funding mechanism in the initiative,” Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner said. “A more accurate question to voters would have been: Do you want to reduce class sizes in middle school classrooms by allowing a 2 percent increase in their sales tax?

“I think the best return on education is to focus on our underprivileged kids in places like Hillyard, rather than a smaller class for an eighth-grader in Mercer Island,” Baumgartner said.

Most studies show that lower student-to-teacher ratios are beneficial to students, especially in the lower grades. Some studies, however, conclude the quality of the teachers is more important than class size.

Bambi Howe teaches kindergarten at Madison Elementary School in Spokane, where last year she had 27 students. She has 20 students this year, and she said that makes a big difference. She knows what’s happening with each child educationally as well as personally, she said. Giving them individualized attention is easier.

Class size is among the top three concerns of parents in the Spokane Public Schools district, according to a recent survey. Superintendent Shelley Redinger said that’s one reason she supports the initiative, which also is backed by the Washington Education Association.

Redinger’s view isn’t shared by many school or district administrators. The Association of Washington School Principals board voted to oppose the initiative, saying it lacks a dedicated funding source and would tie the hands of schools in spending any new revenue that comes their way.

“I know I’m not in the majority in terms of administrators for supporting this initiative,” Redinger said. “But I think it’s important to ask voters what they think.”

She added, “I represent the community and teachers, so why wouldn’t I be supportive of it?”

While the initiative specifies class sizes, it also recognizes some districts may not have the space to accommodate more classrooms. In those cases, school districts could use some of the money for expansion or to put more adults in existing classrooms.

The initiative’s sponsor thinks I-1351 is the next “logical” step to help schoolchildren.

But Liv Finne, education director of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, believes the initiative is redundant.

Class-size reduction “is an effort we have been working on and have achieved, especially in low-income schools,” she said. “The better responsibility is to focus on teaching. If I were a teacher, I’d be upset.”

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