It makes intuitive sense that smaller class sizes would make it easier for teachers to address the needs of each student, yet sometimes we hear from very important people — former education secretary Arne Duncan and Microsoft founder Bill Gates among them — that it doesn’t matter to a great teacher. Actually, research clearly shows that it matters — a lot.

A review of the major research published a few years ago found, among other things:

· Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes and one that can be directly determined by policy. All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.

· The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more-substantial social and educational costs in the future.

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· The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size is likely to be most harmful to those populations.

Yet in many districts, class sizes top 30, 40 or even 50 students, and it is a major issue in the contract impasse in Los Angeles, where some 30,000 teachers are set to go on strike Monday. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Thursday said the union, United Teachers Los Angeles, could legally strike Monday. The teachers have demanded, among other things, smaller class sizes, as well as more funding for public schools.

On Thursday, California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom (D), proposed a $209 billion budget that would significantly boosts funding for public schools. After the announcement, the Los Angeles Unified School District sent out a release saying it would offer a new proposal on class size to United Teachers Los Angeles on Friday.

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This post takes a look at the issue of class size in Los Angeles and, by extension, everywhere else. It was written by Leonie Haimson, the founder and executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit group that advocates for small class sizes.

By Leonie Haimson

More than 30,000 teachers at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — the second-largest school district in the country after New York City — are about to go on strike, because they have reached an impasse with the district leadership. The strike, scheduled to start Monday, will be the first for the union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, in nearly 30 years. The main issue under contention is not salary, where the two sides are close together; Superintendent Austin Beutner has offered a 6 percent increase, with the union demanding 6.5 percent.

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Even more contentious now is the excessive class sizes suffered by too many Los Angeles public school students and teachers. The district claims it cannot afford to reduce class size, while the union says there is a budget surplus of over $1.8 billion.

Though some people make the claim that class size doesn’t really matter for a great teacher, it does. Research conclusively shows that small classes benefit all students, but especially disadvantaged students of color, who reap twice the benefit from small classes.

In the Hill newspaper, former U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan, who worked under former president Barack Obama, wrote an op-ed in opposition to the strike and in defense of the district’s position in which he made several questionable claims. The first was to support the district’s statement that LAUSD has smaller average classes than any other large California district but San Francisco. He wrote:

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On class size, Los Angeles Unified has an average of 26 students per class. Of the 10 largest school districts in California, only one has a smaller average class size than Los Angeles.

There is conflicting data on this, but suffice it to say that information on the LAUSD website supports the union’s position that average class sizes are probably far larger than 26 in every grade but K-3, with averages of more than 30 students per class in grades 4 through 8, and more than 40 in high school classes.

In addition, a separate fact sheet prepared by the district says, "Nearly 60 percent of all Los Angeles Unified schools and 92 percent of the elementary schools have 29 or fewer students in each classroom.” This means that 40 percent of Los Angeles public schools have 30 or more students per class on average.

As Los Angeles teacher Glenn Sacks has written:

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At my high school, for example, we have over 30 academic classes with 41 or more students, including nine English/writing classes as many as 49 students, and three AP classes with 46 or more students. One English teacher has well over 206 students — 41+ per class. A US Government teacher has 52 students in his AP government class. Writing is a key component of both classes — the sizes make it is impossible for these teachers to properly review and help students with their essays.

How any teacher can give students the individual support and attention in classes this large is simply impossible to imagine.

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Even more importantly, the argument currently between the union and the district is not about average class sizes but maximum class sizes — and more specifically, whether the district should adhere to any limits on class size at all.

There is a waiver in the current contract that allows the district to ignore any and all class size caps, as long as they claim financial necessity — and the administration has take advantage of this waiver every single year since the great recession in 2009. That year, the district issued massive teacher layoffs, which increased class sizes in nearly every school. Since then, the administration has continued to use this loophole in the contract to unilaterally decide to violate previously agreed-upon contractual caps, despite the fact that the district has experienced budget surpluses for many years in a row.

You can see the language which allows them to do this in Section 1.5 of Article 8 of the current UTLA contract, struck out in the union’s final offer here:

Though the LAUSD final offer now also strikes out that clause; it substitutes a new one, which allows it to ignore agreed-upon caps on class size if any one of a whole variety of circumstances occur, including if health benefits or pension costs increase by more than 2 percent, student enrollment declines more than 1 percent, teacher shortages occur, etc. etc. etc.

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To add insult to injury, the district’s latest offer also increases the contractual maximum class sizes from 30 to 34 students per class in grades 4 and 5, and to 37 students per class in most middle school and high schools.

For more than five years, the Los Angeles school board has been on record supporting smaller classes and yet has done nothing to achieve this. As former school board member Carl Peterson explained:

On June 18, 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) School Board voted for a resolution that directed their “Superintendent to examine the feasibility of implementing class-size reduction for the 2014-15 academic calendar and to develop a long term, class-size reduction strategy that will yield positive academic results.” In the over five years that have passed since the resolution should have been implemented, the District has had four different Superintendents. The class size ratio has remained exactly the same.

Year after year, class sizes in many schools have remained out of control, and the district continues to demand that the superintendent should have the unilateral right to abrogate contractual caps without any restrictions on his authority. Thus, the real issue is not what the actual averages may be across the system, as Duncan claims, but whether class sizes in individual schools and classrooms should be allowed to rise to 40 or 50 students per class, or even more.

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Finally, the union is putting its collective foot down, and saying no more. No teacher can effectively teach under these conditions, and no child can learn, but especially those students in poverty, who make up 80 percent of the district’s students.

The one independent member of a fact-finding arbitration panel that released a report on the union-contract impasse late last month agreed with the union that class sizes should be reduced. As David A. Weinberg, the neutral chair of the panel, wrote:

I agree with the Union argument that lower class sizes are one of the best predictors of successful teaching and student success. I also agree that lowering class size may be one of the keys to increasing ADA [average daily attendance], and maintaining and recruiting students to LAUSD, which remains a joint goal of the parties.

Indeed, the elite private school that Duncan’s children attend, the Lab school in Chicago, has average class sizes of 18 students and a cap under union contract of 24 students per class from kindergarten onward — with no exceptions allowed. Would Duncan sit still for his own children being crammed into a class of 40 or more? Would his children’s teachers? Absolutely not.

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Not content to include the red herring of class-size averages in his op-ed, Duncan also throws in the following well-worn straw man:

As a parent, would you rather have your child in a class of 26 students with a highly effective teacher or a class of 22 with a less than effective teacher?

Let’s ignore the fact that in this case, the issue is not class sizes of 26, but classes of 30, 40 or more. But even so, that is not the choice that teachers or parents at suburban schools or elite private schools are forced to make. Their children have access to both effective teachers and small classes. So should the higher-needs students in Los Angeles public schools.

In fact, there is NO evidence that there would be any trade-off between class size and teacher quality. One study showed that when the “Los Angeles Unified School District needed to triple its hiring of elementary teachers following the state’s class-size reduction initiative in 1997, the district was able to do so without experiencing a reduction in mean teacher effectiveness.”

Even if hiring more teachers might lead to a temporary decrease in experience level, other studies have confirmed that when class sizes are lowered, teacher attrition rates fall. This finding is not altogether surprising, because when teachers receive better working conditions and a real chance to succeed, they find more fulfillment in their jobs and their incentive to leave the profession or work elsewhere is diminished.

In this way, reducing class sizes in Los Angeles schools to more-reasonable levels would be expected to act synergistically to enhance teacher quality, rather than undermine it, as lower rates of attrition would probably increase the experience level and overall effectiveness of the teaching force over time.

LAUSD’s own figures show it could lower class sizes to pre-2008 levels for $200 million — only a bit more than 10 percent of its current reserve. In addition, the union estimates that there are more than 2,000 teachers currently employed by the district in out-of-classroom positions, so this action would not cost nearly as much if these individuals were redeployed. Why not?

The reluctance of the administration may not be solely financial. In 2000, California voters approved Proposition 39, which gave charter schools the right to demand unused or underutilized space in public-school buildings. If class sizes were reduced in public schools, this would necessitate the use of more classrooms, which then would leave less space for the expanding Los Angeles charter-school sector to co-locate in their buildings. The demands of charter schools for space in public schools have mushroomed over the last decade, as the charter sector has expanded, LAUSD enrollment has shrunk and class sizes have increased.

Jackie Goldberg, another former Los Angeles school board member who also served on the State Assembly as chair of its Education Committee, explains:

This is one of the unspoken reasons why the CCSA [California Charter School Association]-backed school board refuses to consider getting rid of Section 1.5; it would make life tougher for their partners in Prop. 39 co-locations. And if we can’t change Prop. 39 through our contract, we can at least make sure our contract doesn’t aid and abet Prop. 39 invasions.

Whose benefit is the Los Angeles school board and superintendent supposed to serve? The 600,000 public-school students in the district, whose schools they are responsible for governing, and who have a right to a quality education with reasonable class sizes?

Or the privately run charter-school sector that spent nearly $10 million in 2017 to elect a pro-charter majority on the LAUSD school board — in an election that has been reported to be the most expensive school board race in U.S. history?

(Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said, “Even if hiring more teachers might lead to a temporary increase in experience..." It should be " temporary decrease," and is now fixed in the text.)