Smaller class sizes help deliver on the promise of a great education

John Burbank, EOI Executive Director

John Burbank, EOI Executive Director

I always think of September as the actual beginning of the year.  School starts, summer vacation is over, and we are all back to work.  As I help out with coaching duties for cross country at Ballard High School, I can feel the enthusiasm that rolls over the athletic field filled with girls playing soccer and then boys playing football, and both girls and boys doing intervals on the track.  You can sense the hope, wonder, and fear of the ninth graders as they start their journey through high school.  They are questioning themselves, “can I really run around this track in less than two minutes?” and then when they do, they realize they can run (and study and learn) much more than they had thought possible.  They are turning over a new leaf in the book of their lives, creating for themselves a heady rebirth of wonder.

This month two new ingredients were added to this frothy mixture of education.  The first was the opening of the first charter school in our area, First Place Scholars in Seattle. This is a school for homeless kids.  It features classes with 15 kids.  In kindergarten and 1st grade, each classroom also has an assistant, helping the students and the teacher.  What is interesting about this is that it is not revolutionary at all.  It is good practice.  Ask yourself, as a parent, teacher, coach, or student, and you will get your own answer:  smaller class sizes make it easier to learn and to teach…. Yesterday I had about 16 kids on the track, timing them, encouraging them, slowing them down and speeding them up…. over and over again.  I got to call out each runner by name, and each runner responded.  It makes a big difference when you can zero in on Emma or Jade or Sophie or Tate, rather than just yelling out “speed it up”.  And that’s what you end up doing when 35 kids are whizzing around at the same time!

So class size is important.  It is important at the school for homeless kids and it is important on the Ballard track.  It is actually fundamental for meeting the state’s constitutional paramount duty for education.  It’s one of the reforms that has been mandated by Supreme Court’s ruling about our public schools:  the state must provide funding to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to no more than 17 students per teacher by 2018.

So are we going to twiddle our thumbs and wait for and hope that the Legislature actually does what they are mandated to do?  That would be to fund K-12 education as the State Supreme Court ruled.  But the Legislature may just decide to duck again, and push this off for another year or two or three, and in so doing, undermine the education and well-being of the million plus kids in the public K-12 system.

That’s where Initiative 1351 comes in.  This initiative is pretty simple.  It says that by 2018, four years from now, average class sizes in K-3 must be no more than to 17 students, and for grades 4-12, no more than 25 students.  That sounds a lot like the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision…. And it is.

So you might wonder why the Seattle Times is ganging up against I-1351 and critiquing incumbents like Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and Marco Liias, D-Mukilteo, because they support Initiative 1351.  The answer is pretty simple:  while the Times can tout a small school for fewer than 100 homeless kids with small class sizes, it apparently isn’t worth the funding to implement these same measures for learning for all the other homeless and poor and middle class kids in the state.  The Times will say that it’s too much money.  But they miss a basic fact:  education costs money.

Lower class sizes = more teachers = more state funding.  It is simple math that Representative Dunshee and Senator Liias understand.   And it also means making sure that each year the promise of September is fulfilled with learning, opportunity, and achievement when school wraps up in June.

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Posted in Column, Educational Opportunity


  1. Jeanne Large says:


    As a former 6th grade teacher who had a class size of 33 my 1st year, 31 the 2nd, 30 the 3rd and never less than 28 the rest of my career, I understand and strongly support addressing the issues of class size and funding.

    However, I think we have it in the wrong order. We need to fund education and then reduce class size. In the meantime, hiring teaching assistants to help out in the classroom is a more affordable and do-able strategy. When I was teaching, I always offered to mentor student teachers because I enjoyed that role…..but also because it doubled the ratio of adults to children in the classroom.

    Another reason the class size reduction proposal would be very difficult to implement is the additional classrooms that would be needed if we reduced class sizes as proposed. As they say, “Do the 3rd grade math.” If we reduce class size, we not only will need more teachers, we’ll need more classrooms. Lots of them.

    I’m a relentless advocate of a revised state tax system. We have the results of a great tax study that’s been sitting on the shelf in Olympia since 2002. Let’s get it out, get people to read it and challenge the legislature to “do the math”.

    Thanks for all your work.

    Jeanne Large
    Kirkland, WA

  2. Glenda Carper says:

    I agree with the goals of this initiative. But I think it would make more sense for you to give realistic suggestions for the legislature to use to find ways to provide the funding without taking money from other much needed social and environmental programs. If people know what solutions to push with their legislators, that could help. Thanks.

  3. K. Rhoades says:

    Look at other less affluent states that have accomplished this like Florida. If they can do it, there really is no reason why we can’t.

  4. helenoconnell says:

    Jeanne Large, your concern is well taken, but see the Yes on 1351 FAQs (

    “I-1351 allows school districts without enough classroom space to use the class-size reduction funds for additional staff that provide direct services to students. In some cases, for example, two teachers might serve the students in one classroom.”

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