Class Sizes, Slogans, and Leadership

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.


One Response to “Class Sizes, Slogans, and Leadership”

  1. Michele Boyd Says:

    I agree that without question, there needs to be a plan. However, the bottom line is that PWC ranks #10 out of 10 surrounding counties in the greater metropolitan DC area in per pupil spending. Dead last. You get what you pay for and we are all experiencing this cruelty firsthand – teachers, students, & parents.

    I wrote to Corey Stewart about this appalling reality in the 7th wealthiest county in the U. S. and his response was that the BOCS balances the needs of education against the needs of seniors living on fixed incomes. Then I read last week in The Washington Post how PWC has become a Retirement Mecca for the 55+ crowd which drove PWC higher than Montgomery County in the wealth rankings. The article noted that this set doesn’t care much about education since their kids are grown up. Apparently they are too busy deciding whether to play a round of golf, join a wine club, or plan their next trip. (Just wonder why they aren’t concerned about their grandkids’ education, unless they are being educated in the surrounding counties.)

    This is the group that the BOCS, led by Corey Stewart, has decided is most important – more important than young families and our children. This is where their votes come from I suppose.

    I asked of him just one thing: please stop describing PWCS as offering a “World Class Education” when by nearly every measure we don’t. It’s a deceptive slogan.

    One last thing: my coworker who lives in the bedroom community of Mantua in Fairfax County – her kids’ elementary school has a max of 24 students in each class and every teacher has an assistant. Unbelievable. This kind of classroom size with plenty of teacher support explains why Faifax’s average SAT scores are well over 200 points than PWCS.

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