I’m Concerned About I-1351’s Effects on Higher Education

This entry was published at least two years ago (originally posted on December 11, 2014). Since that time the information may have become outdated or my beliefs may have changed (in general, assume a more open and liberal current viewpoint). A fuller disclaimer is available.

Filed under “yes, even I can have unpopular opinions”: I’m very concerned about where the money to fund I-1351’s directives is going to come from. We live in a state where voters refuse to put money into the system (we couldn’t even pass a minuscule sales tax on candy bars and soda to fund various services), but demand that the system provide services that cost money. This is going to cost billions in hiring teachers, constructing classrooms, and lots of other associated costs, and we have no idea where that money is going to come from (but we’re by-golly determined not to pay for it ourselves!).

And according to this article (by fivethirtyeight, which started as a political statistical analysis site and has branched out into applying statistical analyses to all sorts of other things), it’s really not even clear that smaller class sizes will make that much of a difference compared to other possible expenditures such as hiring/training better teachers, giving raises, or putting money into new/better texts, supplies, and technology.

Class-size reductions make sense intuitively — in smaller classes, kids get more attention, distractions are reduced and working conditions are improved. Many economists and education policy experts say, though, that this isn’t a case where the common-sense fix is guaranteed to be the best fix. Many of the studies on class size are inconclusive, and even those who support cutting class size in theory are dubious about whether I-1351 is the best or most cost-effective way to improve public education in Washington.

[…] Attempts to implement large-scale class-reduction policies have yielded less encouraging results. In 2002, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative like I-1351 that amended the state constitution to include caps on class sizes in all grades. An analysis of data from Florida conducted by Matt Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Education Policy found no differences between students who were new to a small classroom and those who had already been in one.

[…] “Reducing class size is one of the most expensive things you can do in education,” Chingos said. “Even if it does have a substantial positive effect, it still might not be the best use of limited resources.” He said that in some cases, raising teacher salaries could be a more effective use of funds. “Really the lesson is that you want to build in flexibility,” he said. “Different school districts have different needs. It’s very far from one-size-fits-all.”

Eric Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said that I-1351 could have the unintended effect of reducing teacher quality. “This isn’t about hiring high-quality teachers, it’s about hiring more teachers, and that means we’re going to see a lot more inexperienced teachers in the classroom,” he said.

Some education advocates in Washington state are concerned that the class-size mandate will siphon funds from other policies. […] Practically speaking, the state government has only so much money to spend. I-1351’s biggest flaw might be its failure to acknowledge this reality.

At this point, I (and many other people I talk to in higher education) are very worried that without a funding source, the state is going to end up pulling even more money out of the already hard-hit higher education system, damaging it further in the name of improving the K-12 education system.

Everyone agrees that better education — across the board — is important. But, jeez. It’s not magic. There needs to be a way to pay for it.