A CLASS ISSUE
February 4, 1998
In our continuing analysis of President Clinton's State of the Union address, Phil Ponce and guests examine the President's proposal to reduce the number of students per class at schools around the country.
PHIL PONCE: In his State of the Union address last week the president made smaller classes one of his top education goals.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (January 27) Tonight, I propose the first ever national effort to reduce class size in the early grades. (Applause) My balanced budget will help to hire 100,000 new teachers who pass the state competency test. Now, with these teachers--listen, with these teachers we will actually be able to reduce class size in the first, second, and third grades to an average of 18 students a class all across America. (Applause) If I've got the math right, more teachers teaching smaller classes requires more classrooms. So I also propose a school construction tax cut to help communities modernize or build 5,000 schools. (Applause)
PHIL PONCE: Now, two perspectives on the president's proposals. Richard Riley is Secretary of Education and Republican William Goodling of Pennsylvania is the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Welcome, gentlemen. Congressman, the idea seems obviously. Smaller class size means better learning.
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING, Chairman, Education & Workforce Committee: I don't argue whether smaller class size in the early grades is important or isn't important. I work hard as a superintendent to do that. And it is my responsibility locally to do that. All I ask the federal government to do is take away my mandates and let me do that on my own. Fund, if you want to help me reduce class, fund the special education program. And what he did in his budget with special education was give it even less than inflation, something that we mandated 95 percent at least and said we'd send him 40 percent of the money. Before I became the chairman, the most they sent was 6 or 7 percent. We're up to probably about 10 percent now. But if you want to help the local school district, then get rid of some of the mandates, or fund the mandates that you're sending down there. And they can do all sorts of things.
PHIL PONCE: But getting to the issue of class size, does smaller class size necessarily mean that more learning is taking place?
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING: The administration has shown two small studies from, I believe, two small states. (beeper going off) Excuse me.
PHIL PONCE: Luckily you're not in a federal court. (laughter among group)
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING: As I said, that all depends on who the classroom teacher is. An outstanding classroom teacher probably can teach twenty-five or thirty. A poor classroom teacher--I don't care how many you give them--it's not going to be very--they're not going to do very well. Now, the one thing you save, I guess, if you have eighteen with a poor teacher, instead of twenty-five, then at least seven people didn't have that poor instruction. But, again, that's a responsibility of the local and state government that would love to do it if we get off their back with other things. Just to give you a little idea--the President's budget--Washington bureaucracy gets a $143 million increase; classrooms get a minus $476 million in his budget. One of the areas, of course, it's very successful, is Even Start. Now, that I suppose was to send me a message or something of that nature, so they cut that. Last year, they had a great study which showed how effective it was. But chapter two, when the secretary was governor, I bet he used chapter two money--it's now called Title VI--in order to bring about reform because reform only works if you start at the bottom and work up, not from the top down--they cut out.
PHIL PONCE: Secretary Riley, some would argue that in other countries class sizes are much larger than they are in the United States. For example, Japan class sizes, reportedly, are forty or fifty students in a class, and yet, their math scores are higher than in the United States. What's the correlation between class size and learning?
RICHARD RILEY, Secretary of Education: Well, I don't think any parent or any teacher or any principal will tell you that it's not advantageous, especially in those earlier years--this is for grades one, two and three--and it would bring the class size down to eighteen, as the President said, and with a specialty in reading. And it's not poor teachers. As Bill indicated, poor teachers throws a whole different wrinkle into it. This is for qualified teachers, and it's over a seven-year period, and the reason for that is to be able to have teachers be tested, certified, and so forth, so you'll have qualified teachers with a specialty in reading in those first three grades giving individualized attention. He mentioned special education, which is not what we're talking about, but I'll tell you this, the special attention by a teacher could probably impact the number of children going into special ed, teach ‘em how to read early to teach ‘em the basics of math very early in those first three grades, I think is a wonderful way to have a foundation for their learning and the federal government, by saying that's important for this nation, the state-run local government does the picking the teachers and picking the students and what they teach, but this is a national priority to try to say to all schools out there this is a national thing that we want to do for this country, and I think everybody agrees with it.
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING: Let me tell you--
PHIL PONCE: Just a second. Let me follow up on something he said because I think you raise an important point. Setting national priorities, are you comfortable that national priorities are being set based on good research? Is there research that shows--that makes a correlation between class size and results?
SEC. RICHARD RILEY: There's some very good research coming out of Tennessee, the Star Study it's called, it's over--it's a longitudinal study--over a period years--it was K through 4. And it clearly showed that if you get the class size down to fifteen to eighteen, that you do have achievement scores up. And also those follow the student. They don't drop off then if they go into a higher number of pupils later on. So I think that study is very clear and is very convincing to me.
PHIL PONCE: Well, are you persuaded by that study?
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING: Well, again, as I said, there are two studies with two small states. There's no massive study that's out there that really tells you very much. But let me tell you about the cost. I've been through this. If you have ten sections in first grade, second grade, and third grade and you only want to reduce by six in each one of those, you're talking about almost a million dollars, almost a million dollars to do that. And this is the federal government who's saying this, the federal government who won't pay for the mandates that are already out there, so that local districts as a matter of fact can take care of initiatives like this. If that's what the local people want and if that's what the parents want and that's our whole agenda, let's talk about basic, let's talk about quality, let's talk about parental involvement, let's build it from the bottom up, not from the top down.
PHIL PONCE: How about that, too much federal involvement in something that some people perceive to be a local issue?
SEC. RICHARD RILEY: Well, I mean, it's up to them to want it, and I would presume all the states would want it. It's such a basic--he talks about basics. This is the very basic of basics, the number of pupils in a classroom. And I think it's very clear that you could take Title I funds under this proposal and use them for the state match. So you could use the federal funds to match these funds. And it would have just an enormous benefit, improvement, in my judgment, in education in this country.
PHIL PONCE: How about the whole issue of 100,000 more teachers, is there a teacher shortage?
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING: No. As a matter of fact, there isn't anyplace that you can't go that some young person is clerking in a store who is a certified teacher and can't get a job. Now, you know, if you want to talk about quality, that's one thing, but let's make sure that those who are presently teaching--you know, my whole argument with the President last year was if 40 percent of the youngsters have a difficult time reading in the third grade level by the time they get to the end of third grade, wouldn't you first look at teacher preparation, wouldn't you look about preschool readiness programs for those youngsters? Of course, our idea was no, let's just test them and somehow or other the problem will go away. But there are 100,000--200,000 maybe--young people out there, certified Now, do they need additional training? Yes. Probably everybody in the school district needs additional training at the present time. Do elementary teachers need help in math and in science? Of course. They haven't had all of the basic math and science courses in high school, and they don't have any in college, and all of a sudden you're asking them to teach math and science. And so the teachers are out there. Now, you know, can we give them an incentive to go where they're most needed, center city, real rural America? Yes, I don't have any problem with that.
PHIL PONCE: Enough teachers?
SEC. RICHARD RILEY: Well, these programs can be used to recruit good quality teachers to help with their education and to then of course make sure the state has a test to give them to see that they're competent. It is quality teachers. This is not just bodies to bring the numbers down. We're talking about quality teachers. And we're also talking about modernizing school buildings. Those are two very basics. If you bring the numbers down, you need more teachers, and you need more space. This is a thoughtful program that the President has come forth with, a federal government priority just like we did in Sputnik, prioritizing math and science, and it has worked beautifully. We did that with the GI bill. The government now, the federal government is saying we've got the highest enrollment ever in the history of the country. It's going up for the next ten years. So we think this is a good national priority for us to help states and local school districts with and makes a whole lot of sense.
PHIL PONCE: How about that, Congressman, 5,000 more buildings the president talked about--either modernize or build?
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING: It's amazing. In ‘95 they cut that out, any modernization, any additions. ‘96, the administration cut out all of that money. They said that that's the responsibility for the local school district and for the state. And I agree with that. But we have to get off their back to free up the money. He says now you can take your chapter one money and use it as a match. What happens to the rest of the chapter one program throughout there if you did that? You see, it's the old we throw out the carrot and then we promise but we don't deliver the money.
PHIL PONCE: But at this point, 5,000 more either new buildings or renovated ones, is that a national need?
REP. WILLIAM GOODLING: Is it a national need? Well, there are some center city schools--there's no question--we tried to modernize here in D.C.. We tried to renovate. We couldn't get it through. The Congress couldn't get it through the administration. Why don't you remove Davis Bacon? You want to help ‘em back there do renovating of school business, you want to get ‘em new buildings--propose the elimination Davis Bacon. You cut the cost by a third.
PHIL PONCE: We'll have to take up Davis Bacon some other time. We're out of time. Thank you both.