Statewide School Survey Indicates Increasing Class Size Is the Norm

John Mooney | August 11, 2011 | Education
Even with a slight boost in state aid for the current school year, many districts say class size will still climb

Always an important number for parents, class size is also often a barometer of the fiscal condition of a school system: the tighter the dollars, the fewer the staff, the more students in each classroom.

A new survey of New Jersey schools over the past two years proves that this state is no exception — although the results also present some interesting twists.

The New Jersey School Boards Association contacted all 575 districts in June to quiz them on how class size has been affected by two budgets: last year’s (2010-2011), which saw steep cuts in state aid, and this year’s (2011-2012), which saw a slight increase.

A total of 186 districts responded. Not surprisingly, about a third of all participants again said class size climbed last year, largely due to shrinking state aid.

And even though budgets are a bit beefier this year, a third of all respondents said class size is likely to increase again. Of the remainder, nearly two-thirds said they would stay the same, while one in 10 said they would decrease.

“It seems to be leveling off a little,” said Frank Belluscio, the association’s communications director. “They are doing everything they can to retain programs, keep their teachers, but we still have a third increasing class size.”

A Report Card

New Jersey tracks class size for every school as part of its annual School Report Card, and although there are some questions as to how it is computed, the average had been slowly but steadily dropping over the past decade.

In the most recent Report Card for the 2009-2010, the state listed the average as 18.2 students per classroom, considerably down from even five years ago, when it was in the low 20’s.

But if the school board survey is accurate, it looks as if it will bump up class size for the next Report Card and possibly the one after that. And that second increase is not entirely due to state aid reductions.

As indicated, last year’s cuts — amounting to 5 percent of budgets — were the big reason for the increase in class size. But school officials said a range of factors are going into increases this year.

The top one is the new property tax caps, listed by a third of respondents as a driving force in larger class sizes. Another fifth said their own enrollment had increased. The third factor is the continued dearth of state aid.

The range of comments that came with the survey also represented an interesting mix of reactions from school leaders. Many listed class size as arguably the single most important factor in learning, and said some classes had become untenable, as large as 30 or even 40 students.

“Class size has been our district’s sacred cow,” wrote one Bergen County board president. “We have tried to look everywhere except at class size policy when cutting expenses.”

But a few others called class size overrated, saying it only becomes problematic when classes exceed 30 students. Still others said classes that are too small are stifling.

“Too small a class leads to little discussion and challenging of ideas and not enough motivators to encourage others to learn,” wrote a Hunterdon County administrator and former teacher. “The best combination is a large class size with in-class support, and a strong school discipline policy to prevent misbehavior.”

One caveat to be aware of is that the survey was completed before the final state budget was struck, including an additional $650 million for schools. The bulk of that went to the 31 highest-poverty districts under the Abbott v. Burke ruling.

That could affect class size, especially in those districts where it has been the biggest challenge.

But in urban and suburban districts, many school leaders have also said that the late addition of aid will likely have limited impact on the coming school year, since many districts are choosing to hold onto the money as a cushion for the year after.