Low-class Locke

His pricey plan to shrink class sizes is pure politics and bad policy.

Gary Locke’s election year budget has it all: modest cuts to appease the cost-conscious, a property tax rebate for grandma, funding for local governments hacked by I-695 cuts, and a tons of new spending for education—hey, it’s for the kids!

Like most election year proposals, Locke’s plan is a tricky m鬡nge of budget tweaks and political games designed to set the governor up as a man (with a telegenic family, by the way) who is a reasonably progressive Democrat, yet who has heard the People’s cry for lower taxes and spending cuts. In short, the budget is made to position the governor for success in the year 2000 by embracing and undercutting I-695 simultaneously.

He embraces it by proposing property tax reform, which includes what amounts to a $30 bribe, or tax-cut check, to every man, woman, and voter in the state. He also offers a few government cuts, including 1,500 state jobs. He undercuts this, however, by restoring 90 percent of funding for local I-695 cuts (hey, we thought the sky was gonna fall!) by spending part of the state surplus. And he rolls out a major new spending program.

That major new spending program is the gift wrap for his grab bag of proposals. Locke wants to spend more money on educating the kids. It is the one thing Gary Locke is passionate about, we are told. After all, he is the Education Governor (he must be our third in recent memory). It also happens to be a topic that rides high in polls of what voters care about. It is also, quite possibly, the one thing people think government ought to spend more money on, so it’s catnip to Democrats; but it has bipartisan appeal, as Republicans can justify education spending as sensible corporate welfare that produces properly compliant drones for the millennial workforce.

The main object of Locke’s plan is to reduce class size in the lower grades by hiring more teachers. He would add approximately 1,000 in a year and as many as 8,000 over the next five years, according to The Seattle Times, at a cost of over $1 billion. It sounds great, the teachers will like it, and it appeals to the general public’s common sense. But a couple of things are wrong with it. One, it’s an expensive tactic that, strong evidence suggests, won’t solve the problems with our educational system—and in fact could exacerbate them. And two, the timing for such a proposal is premature.

Reducing class sizes sounds great, but if you accept, as our state’s educators do, that academic testing is the best measure of how our educational system is working, studies show that reducing class size has almost no effect, except, perhaps, in kindergarten. In reality, almost nothing tried has worked. In a paper prepared for the Progressive Policy Institute, a New Democrat think tank, University of Rochester professor Eric Hanushek, an expert on class size in education, reports the following: Between 1950 and 1995, student/teacher ratios dropped by a third nationally, from 27-to-1 to 17-to-1; the result has contributed to a near tripling of real spending per student since 1960. Despite this, student test scores have remained stagnant or declined.

And not only hasn’t class size reduction made a difference, neither has an improvement in traditional teacher qualifications: During that same time, the number of teachers with master’s degrees nearly doubled and the median years of teacher experience rose from 11 to 15 years.

In addition, large-scale class reduction initiatives can be problematic. States like California have had to scramble to hire new teachers, many underqualified, and schools have experienced space crunches, resulting in crowded facilities and increased spending for school construction. These are high prices to pay for a policy that doesn’t work.

Another problem is that you are simply bringing more teachers, assuming you can find them, into a system that underpays and underappreciates them. Granted, Washington teachers were awarded pay raises last spring. Nevertheless, starting salaries still average only in the mid-twenties.

Research shows that teacher quality is the single biggest factor in student performance. Good teachers get good results, and according to studies those results can last even when students have bad teachers later in their schooling. However, bad teachers, particularly in the early years, can leave a permanent mark, impacting student performance later on.

So why not spend money to target teacher quality? This would be done by improving teacher pay dramatically (including substitutes); by instituting incentive systems that rewarded teachers with bonuses for student performance; by taking steps to improve the teaching of teachers; by supporting charter schools that would give students and teachers a wider choice of educational environments and suit a wider array of learning and teaching styles; and by making it easier to get rid of lousy teachers.

The Education Governor’s timing is suspect because he has a blue-ribbon, bipartisan panel of very bright, diverse thinkers working on his Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission (the so-called A+ Commission) who are studying the whole issue of student performance; they will issue a report next September. This could provide the governor with a more comprehensive approach to reforming and improving the state’s schools, and offer the voters a much better-defined context for spending education dollars. So why not wait until they’ve had their say?

Locke’s current billion-dollar idea is election year hoo-haw that will cost too much to do too little.