Atlanta Public School Budget Commission meeting set for Thursday – maximum class size waivers likely on the agenda

The Atlanta Public Schools announced that a Budget Committee meeting will be held this coming Thursday, April 17th at 3:30 p.m. While a specific agenda was not released, it is likely that the Budget Commission will ask for additional overall expenditure reductions, reallocations of expenditures from administrative functions to the classroom and then also assess the cost impact of changing the maximum class size waiver resolution which was tabled during the Board meeting on Monday.

The maximum class size waiver resolution was discussed during Monday’s Board meeting, but then it was determined that the class size waiver resolution had to be completed in the context of the FY15 budget discussion and, consistent with prior years, the analysis and recommendations will be established at the Budget Commission level.

I think it is important at this point to bring in the new superintendent’s views on the issue. In the community forum this past Sunday, Dr. Carstarphen specifically addressed class sizes and said [emphasis added],

Class size is not a “one size fits all” – that I have learned. You can do really big classes in some areas, but it depends on the experience and the comfort level of the teacher. Good principals know that they can staff a classroom based on the talent of the teacher…. It is the strength and the knowledge of the principal that can help think through the size of a class based on grade level, student need and content area.

Per pupil spending here is a nice size, but we will have to decide where we want to spend the money. You can put it into class size, you can put it into early childhood education, or anywhere you want to. What I will try to do is lay out for you what are the best practices

In Austin we tried to push as much money into schools as possible… [establish] what is it that you are trying to support and then cut out anything else… if class size is the choice, then it is the choice, but it is pretty cost prohibitive and there is not a lot of evidence that it is the solid choice in that – if you do this, then X happens. It is a really mixed bag.  

The following is some background on the statutory requirements in GA. Per the GA DOE, the maximum class sizes are (see more detail at the GA DOE here):

  • Kindergarten with a teacher and a paraprofessional – 20
  • Grades 1-3  – 21
  • Grades 4-5  – 28 – English, Math, Science, Social Studies
  • Grades 6-8  – 28 – English, Math, Science, Social Studies
  • Grades 9-12 – 32 – English, Math, Science, Social Studies & Foreign Language

The current class size waiver under consideration is for up to +5 in grades K-8 and up to plus +3 in grades 9-12 over the established state class size maximums. Additionally, last year it was determined that the cost of not passing the waiver was approximately $24 million – I expect that the cost this year will be similar in size. However, the cost can be broken down into much smaller pieces for specific grade levels.

The information provided last year by the administration was often confusing and the information was not easily digested by either Board members or parents. In light of that, it is important to understand several items that influence the average class size calculations, as follows:

  • The only teachers that are considered in this calculation are the 1,484 teachers budgeted in account 1200-Direct Instruction and the 191 teachers budgeted in account 1202-Kindergarten. The remaining approximately 1,431 teachers – who are in special disciplines like Fine Arts, Athletics, Early Intervention Program, Gifted Program, Exceptional Children’s Program and Vocational Programs – are not included in the determination of average class size in the subjects noted above.
  • There are a number of teachers that are budgeted in the Special Revenue Fund that are excluded from the calculation as well. How many? We do not know as the administration has never released this information. Unfortunately, withholding this critical information began last year and the administration has followed the precedent this year. However, the SRF teachers tend to be “specialty teachers” and would not likely come into play in the very specific class size determination established by the GA DOE.
  • The class size waivers are ultimately used to establish preliminary teacher allocations for budgeting purposes. The allocations are reviewed by principals and adjusted accordingly. However, the allocations still only represent a plan – the actual number of teachers that a school will have is not finally determined until the leveling process occurs after the school year starts. The administration contends that this past year, the leveling process resulted in more teachers being added than originally budgeted to ensure that no class in the district exceeded the maximum size allowed after taking into consideration the waiver.

Additionally, my sense is that the Budget Commission would be assisted in their deliberations if the cost of eliminating the class size waivers is broken down into the following components:

  • Kindergarten – there is a unique interplay between teachers and paraprofessionals in the formula – it is best to segregate this discussion from the other grades.
  • Elementary School – as the statutory maximum class sizes are different for elementary school grade levels, this group has to be broken down into grades 1-3 and grades 4-5 with the specific number of teachers currently budgeted and additional ones needed to lower the class size waiver. This would then allow the Commission, if it so desires, to potentially target specific grades for reducing class sizes.
  • Middle School – this assessment becomes more difficult as the students begin moving from class to class for different subjects and see a number of different teachers throughout the day. While the assessment gets more complicated than the lower grades, simply having the cost and number of teachers that are required to reduce the class size waiver would be very helpful.
  • High School – the current class size waiver is for a +3 and the analysis should be consistent with the Middle School analysis. Last year the waiver size of +3 was not controversial nd it will likely be adopted as is. However, the numbers have to be shown separately or it becomes impossible to establish the actual data for the other school levels.

This is always a “hot button issue” with parents and they coalesced around this issue last year. As a result, the issue led to extended discussions and, ultimately there was some change in the teacher staffing levels, however the changes were insufficient to reduce the requested waiver by even one. Also, the class waiver issue appears to be more of an issue in many of the overcrowded schools and less so in the underutilized schools.

Last year’s class size waiver discussion resulted in lengthy delays in finalizing the FY14 budget and three Board members voted against the final budget as they were not satisfied with the class size waiver resolution – only one of the three has returned with the new Board. However, nearly all the candidates discussed a desire to lower the class sizes in APS. It was clear from some comments made by Board members at the monthly meeting, that this was still front and center in their minds.

In addition, the class size waiver represents a very powerful leverage point that the Board can use to push for a reallocation of resources out of administrative functions and into the classroom. As discussed in prior posts, the current administration is not open to making any such adjustments. However, the Board can force the issue by placing a cap on spending and then lowering the class size waiver request. If this happens, then the administration is essentially forced to get the funding necessary from the administrative functions. However, do not put it past the administration to propose getting the funding from the teacher raise that is under consideration or from other departments that are still under the instruction umbrella.

Taking action now on reducing the class size waiver is potentially fraught with problems as the current administration is not inclined to do so and has dug in its heels on spending reallocations. Again, I would suggest that the current budget – including the current class size waiver – be passed with an amendment that would place a moratorium on $15-25 million in spending that could not be committed to or spent prior to the approval of the new superintendent after her start date of July 7th. The Board and the new superintendent are planning a series of work sessions in the near future and this – along with many other budget priorities – can be worked out between them. The moratorium on spending will then give them the flexibility to modify spending in the manner that they jointly decide is appropriate.

We will see what happens, but let’s hope that the process is not too drawn out and that the Board will look to the Dr. Carstarphen’s far more nuanced and informed views on this issue as a guide toward reaching a resolution in the near term.

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4 Responses to Atlanta Public School Budget Commission meeting set for Thursday – maximum class size waivers likely on the agenda

  1. Beverly Fraud says:

    It seems there has become an increasingly accepted meme amongst educrats (as referenced by Carstarphen) that reducing class size is not an effective use of funds, counter-intuitive as that may seem. As such central office types often trot out people like Malcolm Gladwell to support the meme.

    Funny how these same people never quite embrace reducing central office budgets with the same vigor they seem to embrace the likes of Gladwell, isn’t it?

    Putting THAT part of the discussion aside, something that should NOT be put aside is this new (and timely) study published by the National Education Policy Center, that suggest class size is indeed every bit as important as our intuition leads us to believe it is.

    Of particular importance is the study on Tennessee’s STAR experiment, noteworthy because it was a randomized trial.

    Given this study (blind peer reviewed no less by the NEPC Editorial Board) should this not be “required reading” for ALL those APS officials involved in the decision making process?

    Would it be fair to say, that if this study isn’t at least given serious consideration, that this might be an (unfortunate) “litmus test” of how the new regime is going to operate?

    PS to our erstwhile moderator: Thanks for allowing an often “counter” point of view to be accepted on this blog.

    • Again thanks for the comment – as your “erstwhile” and actual moderator, I believe that multiple points of view are critical to advancing the discussion. A couple of points – Carstarphen did not say that investing in smaller class sizes was “ineffective” – she did say that the research is a “mixed bag” with no clear indication that if you do X you will get Y result. The research study you present looks to be a good one and I want to study it further before making additional comments. I also want to point out that Carstarphen has a demonstrated history – both in St. Paul and in Austin – of reducing administrative budgets and focusing more dollars into the classroom. Bob

    • Also, since you like to look at the research, here us a link to a post from this past June In it there is a link to research on the impact of elementary school teachers advanced degrees on educational outcomes (see this link for the study that references other studies as well Are you on board to eliminate spending that does not impact educational outcomes to increase the number of teachers and thereby reduce class size? Thanks. Bob

      • Beverly Fraud says:

        I think this is a discussion we should be willing to have, so long as we have just as vigorous discussion about cutting administrative bloat.

        If we have led teachers to believe that investing in an advanced degree is going to net them more pay, how do we unilaterally cut them off at the knees, so to speak, when they have done what the system has encouraged them to do? Grandfather those teachers in?

        On the other hand, we do appear to have plenty of evidence that the advanced degree in education is less rigorous than many, if not most other disciplines, and does not lead to substantially better teaching.

        Of course if we are going to have THAT discussion, we may as well have a discussion as to the intellectual rigor of the Educational Leadership degrees many high level administrators have (including superintendents.) Even in the most prestigious schools, the doctorate in education does not seem to carry the same cachet as that of other disciplines-is the extra money school systems spend for THAT advanced degree (in terms of superintendents’ salaries) worth it? (I could see that discussion getting mighty uncomfortable, mighty quick like!)

        Perhaps I am wrong, but I see a school board such as APS being much more willing to discuss the possible “over inflated value” of a teacher’s advanced degree, than they might be willing to discuss the possible “over inflated value” of a high ranking administrator’s advanced degree.

        I’m not sure what the answer is, but as long as we are willing to put it all on the table, yes, I think the advanced degree needs to be on there as well, so long as cuts there go directly to improving teaching and learning conditions.

        Not sure what the answer to proper compensation is, but pretty sure VAM is NOT that answer, given the opinions of statisticians who seem to believe that VAM as currently constituted is fraught with peril.

        After all, can one blame teachers for being skeptical when they are told “We are going to judge you by a formula; we won’t divulge it, and we haven’t worked out all the kinks yet, but we ask that you trust us to be fair and equitable.”?

        PS There are those teachers of course, who take a conscientious approach to post graduate work and improving their craft through it. It’s unfortunate they get lumped in with those who are willing to go to what are all but “diploma mills” just for the money.

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