The Class Size Conundrum At The Heart Of LAUSD's Teachers Strike

LAUSD Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson leads a writing workshop at El Sereno Middle School (Chava Sanchez for LAist)

Science teacher Michelle Levin has only 33 kids in each of her classes — which makes her fortunate.

That's not because a class of 33 is "small." Levin's class sizes at Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles are larger than national averages for similar middle schools, which range from 26 to 28 students.

But Levin says 33 students is small by L.A. Unified School District standards. In most LAUSD middle schools, the largest core classes have 37 kids — and can sometimes be as large as 46.

"We're at the whim of the district for class size," said Levin as she picketed on the first day of her union's strike against LAUSD.

"For me, that's the number one reason I'm out here, because it's not fair to have so many kids in a class."

ARE SMALLER CLASS SIZES WORTH THE COST?

Throughout a protracted contract fight with the school district, leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles have demanded a complete rewrite of the district's class size rules, aiming to make current classes smaller and give the district less power to make them bigger.

To Levin, the benefits are clear: a smaller class size means each student gets more than her fleeting attention. It means she can actually return parents' phone calls. It means 150 papers to grade each night, not 200.

"Class size is a fundamental issue," the union's president Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a recent press conference. "That is about student learning conditions. That is about educator working conditions."

Michelle Levin, a teacher at Daniel Webster Middle School in west Los Angeles, says she teaches 33 students per class — which is low for L.A. Unified School District standards. On the first day of the teachers' strike, Levin walked the picket line outside the school where she teaches holding her "picket umbrella" in addition to her traditional picket sign. (Photos by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

LAUSD officials have proposed reducing class sizes from current levels by a handful of students in certain schools, subjects and grade levels.

Still, class size reduction requires hiring more teachers, which is costly. While LAUSD officials say they wish they could reduce class sizes even further, they also say they're running out of money to spend on the union's demands. (UTLA leaders dispute this claim, saying they think the district is hiding money.)

But if the district could scare up more money, is class-size reduction the best way to spend it?

There are studies, if few and far-between, to support parents' and teachers' intuition — that smaller classes are better for kids. But researchers disagree whether the high price of even a marginal reduction in class size produces enough benefits to be worth the high price tag, especially when it comes at the expense of another program that might help high-needs students.

"Reducing class size is one of the most expensive things you can do in education," said Matthew Chingos, who runs Urban Institute's Center on Education Data and Policy. "You always have to think about the intervention in the context of what it costs."

WHAT RESEARCHERS SAY

One of the highest-quality studies on class sizes, Chingos said, came out of Tennessee in the 1980s. Students from kindergarten to third grade were sorted into small and large class sizes.

The study found students in the smaller classes — with an average of 15 students — scored markedly better on tests and were more likely to go to college than students placed in larger classes.

But the "larger" classes in that study were bigger by one-third, with 22 students.

Compare the class size numbers in that study with the reductions on offer in LAUSD-UTLA negotiations. School district officials propose spending $130 million to reduce some classes sizes — but only by a few students, not by one-third. Here's what the district proposes:

  • Cap fourth through sixth grade classes at 35 students. (Currently, they can be as large as 39 at some schools.)
  • Reduce overall middle school class sizes by 2 students. (Currently, they can be as high as 43 — except for in "non-academic" classes.)
  • Reduce overall high school class sizes by 2 students. (Currently, they can be as high as 46.)
  • Cap middle- and high school math and English class sizes at 35 students.

Neither side has proposed reductions in classes that are already small. Most neighborhood schools' smallest classes would continue to be capped at 27 students. Magnet schools' smallest classes would still be capped at 24.

In other words: LAUSD is spending millions to make only marginal reductions in class sizes. Chingos said it isn't clear that these slightly smaller class sizes will result in material benefits to students — especially if they come at the cost of some other program.

"If you had an extra $1,000 per kid to spend," Chingos said, "it's not clear that you would definitely want to spend it on smaller classes versus paying your teachers more, providing more money for textbooks, for a music program or after-school activities."

By district estimates, the money LAUSD is currently devoting to a class-size reduction proposal could easily meet other union demands that LAUSD's current offer only partially meets: a full-time nurse in every LAUSD school; a full-time librarian in every middle- and high-school; more counselors, deans and social workers.

But Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University who's studied education policy for two decades, takes a different stance: He says the research is more conclusive about the benefits of class-size reduction for kids than Chingos makes it sound.

Baker acknowledges the benefits should be weighed against the high cost of class-size reduction — but unlike Chingos, he doesn't think there are that many ways to spend the money better.

"Class-size reduction is expensive," he said, but "it is unclear that similar or greater gains can be achieved for measurably less."

WEIGHING THE OPTIONS

As much as LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner says he'd like to reduce class sizes even more, he says the district doesn't have the money for it. Beutner suggests United Teachers Los Angeles leaders might consider trading other contract demands for greater class-size reduction — if that is, in fact, their priority.

Noting that the district has offered a 6 percent salary increase to teachers, Beutner floated the idea of putting some of that wage hike toward greater reductions in class sizes.

"We'd entertain that notion," Beutner said in an interview with KPCC/LAist. "If UTLA came to us and told us their members would take something other than [a] 6 [percent salary increase] in order to reduce class size ... we'd listen."

Union leaders would disagree with Beutner's assertion that the district is out of money to spend. (Read more on that dispute here and here.)

But Baker says there's another problem with framing the dispute as a trade-off between class sizes and wages: in L.A. Unified, class sizes and wages aren't very good by relative standards. An LAUSD teacher could make between $10,000 and $20,000 more per year just by moving to neighboring Long Beach.

Baker says spending on either probably does the district good.

"We're only going to be chipping at the edges on either," Baker acknowledges, "and with class sizes that large ... my gut tells me you're probably better off chipping at those edges."

UTLA supporters and members march through downtown toward LAUSD headquarters in the rain. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

THE STICKING POINTS

UTLA leaders' decision to make class-size reduction a centerpiece of negotiations has proven to be a shrewd organizing move, both in winning broad public support for the strike and in galvanizing the union's rank-and-file.

At the bargaining table, though, the sticking point on class sizes is not only how much the district proposes to spend — but the authority it wields over the issue.

The teachers' current contract includes an "escape valve" — a provision that gives LAUSD officials broad discretion to unilaterally raise class sizes in order to balance their budget.

UTLA leaders wants that safety valve closed off for good. If the district won't agree to remove the provision, union leaders say they can't trust that district leaders won't just ignore any deal it cuts on class sizes later.

LAUSD officials have offered to remove this safety valve — but have insisted on replacing it with new language that also grants the district the power to raise class sizes under certain conditions. District officials say they need this flexibility in case of a fiscal emergency.

Here again, union leaders have objected. They've said the district's proposed replacement language gives LAUSD even more power to raise class sizes than the original "escape valve" clause.

In other words, the union wants this section of the contract gone, full stop.

Beutner has said that's not happening. He urged UTLA to come forward with a different counter-offer, but so far he hasn't gotten one.

"We've gone as far as we think we can with the dollars we have," Beutner said. "It's time for [UTLA president] Alex [Caputo-Pearl] to tell us what he wants ... He told us two years ago he wants ... to create a crisis. Congratulations. He has one. Now what? What's it going to take to solve it? Tell us all."

ONE LAST REASON WHY THIS MATTERS

For a moment, set aside the research; set aside the question of costs and regulations.

The ground truth is: parents want small class sizes.

There's a classic L.A. School Board moment from a meeting in 2013, during a debate about class-size reduction, where then-board member Steve Zimmer issued a stark reminder that LAUSD has competition: charter schools, which are publicly funded but staffed with non-union teachers, counselors, and other personnel.

"Here are some websites of charter schools," Zimmer said, holding up printouts. "And on the front pages of every website is class size — 20-to-1. 22-to-1..."

He started tossing a half-dozen printouts to the floor. His message was clear: other schools are using small class sizes as a selling point.

"You get to give more individualized attention ... when there are less students in your classroom," Zimmer, a former teacher, said. "And if you don't believe that, and you don't believe me ... trust the choices that parents have made."

Embedded in Zimmer's argument was a warning: if LAUSD doesn't offer smaller classes, parents will flee the district for schools that will — and not always schools with unionized teachers.

Zimmer had a point: L.A.'s charter school enrollments have skyrocketed in recent years, jeopardizing the district's finances. Funding from the state is dictated by enrollment and attendance. And even though L.A. Unified is the second-largest school district in the country, its enrollment has been declining for more than a decade — leaving it with a smaller and smaller stream of funding.

With every student who leaves, that makes it much more difficult for the district to afford a lot of things parents want — including smaller class sizes.

Editor's Note: A version of this story aired on KPCC. Listen to it here.