As this budget season comes to a close, one unfinished issue stands high above the rest – too large classes in Prince William County Schools. Over the past several years, as the economy crashed and has struggled to come back to life, PWCS has slowly been increasing class sizes to save money. Last year class sizes were pushed to the state’s legal maximum. The net effect is that classes in PWCS are the largest in the state by a significant margin.
Many parents have complained to me about high school math classes with 40 – 42 students in them. Many teachers have told me that they believe learning has been undermined by too large classes. Unfortunately for our school age children, there appears to be no plan whatsoever to bring class sizes down.
I think this is partly because our leaders are too busy batting around unachievable slogans to show real leadership.
Concerns from parents about these huge classes seemed to have had an impact on Peter Candland, the Gainesville District representative to the Board of County Supervisors. Mr. Candland proposed that percentage of taxes received by the county that are allocated to the school division be increased so that the school division could reduce class sizes and increase teacher compensation. Mr. Candland’s proposal was ultimately rejected, but the fact that it was brought up and discussed in public session is astounding.
The BOCS has no power over the school division other than to appropriate funds. It can’t designate the purpose for which money it allocates to the school division can be used. That means that the BOCS can’t direct that the extra money given to the school division be used to reduce class sizes. That means the school division can the extra money for whatever it wants. While I believe class sizes need to come down and teachers need a salary boost, I’m not convinced that the school division would actually use every penny of the extra money to reduce class sizes.
Thus far the only effort the school division has exerted to reduce class sizes has been to develop a catch phrase that it will take $15 million to bring class sizes down by one student in every school in every grade level. That’s not a plan, it’s a slogan, and it’s an ineffective slogan at that. All it does is convince people it will be impossible to find enough money to bring class sizes down, not without huge tax increases that no one can afford because the economy still stinks. It also shows that the school division isn’t serious about reducing class sizes.
If our elected school board members really want to bring class sizes down, then they need to lead. They need to pass a policy that sets maximum class sizes for every grade level and subject and then call on the school division to develop a plan for complying with that policy within a set time frame, like 3 – 5 years. The plan should be for every school, should include projected costs, and should be updated annually until it’s achieved. Alternatives, like hiring classroom aides, up to a maximum, should be available for schools to allow flexibility at the site level.
Such a plan would give the school board something specific to point to when they request additional funding. Such a plan would give our state representatives something to point to when they discuss the effects of changes in the Cost of Competing and other state allocations. Such a plan would allow citizens to see what their money will be used for.
Without a plan our children will remain in classes that are so overcrowded that learning is undermined. A plan will only happen if our school board shows some leadership and passes a policy on class sizes.