For the Record: Class sizes, closing schools

May 15, 2013

Soon after CPS leaders announced plans to close schools, parent advocates sounded the alarm that massive school closings would cause class sizes to swell in the receiving schools.

CPS officials tried to veer away from that discussion, as parents intuitively believe that smaller class sizes are better. Yet it is clear that larger class sizes will be one impact of closing schools that the district considers underutilized. Adding a student or two to classes in receiving schools frees up money, since fewer teachers will be needed and teacher salaries are the district’s biggest expense.

Though the capital cost savings for school closings are unclear and CPS has lowered its initial savings estimates on that front, officials have also estimated that increasing class sizes by just one student would save as much as $26 million per year.  

Wendy Katten, the board president of Raise Your Hand, says that allowing class sizes to go up is the opposite of what most people want. Katten’s organization was started after former CEO Ron Huberman threated to raise class sizes to 35 students to close a budget deficit.

“Parents and teachers, people who are actually in the schools, know class size matters.[Class sizes going up] is certainly not what the stakeholders want,” Katten says.

Research suggests that class size does not have a major impact on achievement unless classes are 15 students or smaller. But the issue resonates with many teachers and parents, who note that classes in some schools are routinely 30 to 40 students, above the district’s own guidelines. They point out that suburban and elite private schools have much lower class sizes, especially in the lower grades.

After CPS leaders took pains to counter Raise Your Hand’s criticism, Catalyst Chicago asked CPS for class size data in December 2012 and then submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the data in February. The information was provided in late April and shows that:

  • Schools that are underutilized according to the district’s formula have, on average, two fewer students than in schools deemed to be at capacity. Only 4 percent of classrooms in closing schools are above recommended class sizes and 12 percent of classrooms in underutilized schools.

  • About 850-more than 25 percent-of primary classrooms have more than 28 students, the amount recommended under the district’s contract with the teachers union.  Class size has the most impact on young students, according to research.

  • Another 713 3rd thru 8th-grade classes have more than 31 students.

  • CPS officials have emphasized that closing schools will help get rid of split-grade classrooms, which are viewed as bad because teachers must teach to a wider range of ability levels. Schools slated for closure do have significantly more split-grade classes than other schools—but even in these schools, split grades are only 14 percent of the total.

Katten notes that in a lot of schools that are slated to close, the principal is using discretionary funds to keep class size low. Yet when schools are combined, it will be more difficult for principals to find the space to spread classes out, she says.

Making choices

The issue of class size is constantly mentioned at rallies and marches against the planned closings. Margaret Cooley, at a march with her grandson from Overton to Mollison on Tuesday, says CPS “just wants to put them all in there and bunch them up.”

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says that principals often choose to add a student or two over the limit to classes, and that board policy only provides guidelines.

Carroll says it is “simply not true” that closing schools will lead to a larger number of over-sized classes.

“Principals will make decisions around class size that they believe are in the best interest of their students,” Carroll says. “All welcoming schools, which are also underutilized, will be within their appropriate utilization range.”

Kristine Mayle from the CTU says principals have a “false” choice. Sometimes they decide to increase class size by one or two students so they can hire a full-time art or music teacher.

“They are supposed to do what is best for students and sometimes that means hiring an extra security guard because they are in an unsafe neighborhood,” Mayle says.

The union has a committee to which teachers in overcrowded classrooms can complain, but Mayle says it has limited staff to investigate and limited access to resources to provide the teacher with relief.

“We are not talking about a kindergarten teacher with 29 students, but rather the one with 40 students,” she says.

At the same time CPS is closing a record number of schools, it also is implementing per-pupil budgeting in which schools get a set amount of money per student, rather than budgets allocated based on the number of teachers needed in a school. That also could have an impact on class size, Mayle says.

“Principals will have an incentive to pack students in,” she says.

Contributing: Linda Lutton (Chicago Public Radio-WBEZ)

Attached is an Excel spreadsheet with class size data, provided by CPS. It is from the 20th day of school. It includes information about which schools are slated to close and which ones slated to receive them.