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Monday, March 22, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Is 100,000-Teacher Plan Worth It? -- Some Question Effectiveness

Seattle Times Washington Bureau

In Maple Valley's elementary schools, teaching these days is partly an exercise in crowd control.

One school has 1,100 students. The town, once little more than a pit stop on the road to the back side of Mount Rainier, has grown so fast that today about a quarter of all students go to school in portable classrooms erected in parking lots and behind the regular buildings.

Families may move there for the country lifestyle, but the four elementary schools are as cramped as the big city's: Each classroom has 26 to 28 kids, about 50 percent more than educators recommend.

All this might indicate the Tahoma School District, which serves Maple Valley, would be an ideal candidate for a new federal program aimed at reducing class sizes by hiring 100,000 elementary teachers. But earlier this month, the district was told how many teachers it will get next school year:

One.

"There's not a lot we can do with that. To us, hiring one more teacher means putting up one more portable," said Kevin Patterson, spokesman for the 5,700-student district.

As Congress considers this year whether to make hiring teachers an annual federal priority, the people actually in charge of educating children are beginning to debate: Is this the best use of billions in federal education dollars?

If it is, will the money filter down to the classrooms that need it most?

As proposed in a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hiring and paying 100,000 teachers during the next seven years would cost $12.6 billion - a 10 percent increase in what the federal government spends on regular elementary and secondary education.

Modeled after a 1994 program to hire 100,000 police officers, the 100,000-teachers idea has energized a number of education groups that only a few years ago were facing the prospect that Congress might try to eliminate the federal Department of Education entirely.

Teachers, school-board members and many superintendents now are lobbying Congress to make the teacher-hiring program permanent. Last year, Congress approved $1.2 billion to hire the first 30,000 teachers for the first year, but the program will expire after one year if it's not reauthorized.

The legislation says teachers must be hired for grades 1, 2 or 3, with the goal of reducing class sizes to about 18 students. In Washington state, classes average about 23 or 24, depending on the grade level, and some have more than 30 kids.

To supporters, the program has the ability to make a tangible difference in early-grade learning in America. But just as important, they believe it can serve as a symbol that the national government has rediscovered the importance of education.

"We have watched for too long as everybody has opted out on education," said Murray, who has made the measure a singular passion. "You're a parent and your child is in a class of 32. So you go to the school board and scream, and they say they don't have the money.

"You go to the state, and they say their hands are tied. So you go to the federal government and say, `What are you doing for our kids?'

"Everybody is always saying no. We can't just continue to say no. It's time to do something concrete. If we can find the money to hire 100,000 police, then certainly we can have 100,000 teachers, can't we?"

Cost-effectiveness in question

The proposal to reduce classes to 18 students is backed by two general arguments. One is the common-sense notion that children learn better in smaller groups.

The other is a landmark study of grade-school kids in Tennessee conducted in the 1980s. More than 11,000 children in kindergarten through third grade were assigned randomly to classes in two size categories: 13 to 17 students or 23 to 25. Kids in the small classes not only performed better on standardized tests, but, as they grew older, got better grades in English and math, were less likely to drop out and more likely to take college-prep courses.

The differences were even more pronounced for poor or minority students. In a follow-up study, Professor Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that black students who had attended small elementary classes were 22 percent more likely to take college-entrance exams in 12th grade than blacks from large classes.

The trouble with the research is that it seems to indicate that class size matters, but only if the number of kids is reduced dramatically, to about 15.

It may not seem like much to drop Washington state class sizes from 24 to 18 or even to 15, but in just this one state it would require hiring more than 10,000 new teachers, as well as potentially doubling classroom space via an unprecedented school construction boom.

Nationally, it's estimated that as many as 1 million teachers would be needed.

In part because of the expense, some research casts doubt on whether a national program to hire teachers is a good use of money.

A new, yet-to-be-released study by the Washington state Legislature found that it's more important to ensure that teachers are competent than to hire more of them. Raising teacher pay, spending more to hire experienced teachers, and increasing teacher education and training all were judged to be four to five times more cost-effective at raising student test scores than simply lowering class size.

The full study, by the Legislature's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, is to be released in June and likely will be used by opponents of the teacher-hiring program. Already this month, Republicans in the U.S. Senate rejected extending the program, arguing that school districts should not be bound to spend the money on new teachers.

It will be considered again later this spring and summer.

Chafing at government mandates

Although local educators say they'd like the money one way or another, a number are beginning to question the wisdom of the federal government mandating that they hire teachers.

"It's a little discouraging, but I think there's a lack of trust implicit in almost all federal funding programs we deal with," said Rich McCullough, superintendent of the Snoqualmie Valley School District. "They don't trust us to spend the money right, so they force us to do whatever they think is best. It's not always best for every school."

Snoqualmie elementary schools have about 22 students in each class, which McCullough says is probably low enough to make class size less pressing than other needs. He says the big issue among superintendents is "how to retain quality teachers, not how to hire new ones."

Other education experts say a nice, round figure such as 100,000 teachers sounds too good to be true because it is.

"It's a classic example of a program driven by politics and not by any analysis of what schools actually need," said Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

"It may make sense in some places, but most everywhere it won't reduce class sizes enough to make any serious difference. And because it's a federal mandate, it's forcing education dollars toward a very crude remedy."

Still, there is a growing movement across the country to make classes smaller, whatever the cost. Last year, California spent $1.2 billion hiring new teachers to reduce class size, as much money as the federal program will spend in the entire United States this year.

Designed to bring class sizes down to 20, the program has had mixed results thus far. The state and many parents say the schools are better. At the same time, the supply of qualified teachers has been exhausted, and hundreds of teachers without teaching certificates or previous experience have been hired. The state has such a shortage of space now that some schools have converted gyms into classrooms.

President Clinton also is proposing a $19 billion initiative over two years to help build new schools.

In Seattle, officials say there is a looming shortage of teachers as well, but that the district will have no problem finding and hiring the 39 teachers it is expected to get under the new program.

Enough to staff an entire elementary school, those teachers should lower average class sizes in grades 1,2 and 3 by about one student per class.

"It's not the end of the matter, but I think it's going to help a great deal," said Mike Jones, in charge of hiring teachers for Seattle schools.

"If they don't continue the program and we have to lay off some teachers, we'll still get some benefit and be able to solve some problems we have right now."

Some districts get more help

Some critics are sure to question the distribution of the money, which is targeted to large districts that have a high proportion of poor families. Consequently, the Highline School District, one of the poorest in the state, will get 10 times as much money as the Tahoma School District, even though it has only three times as many students.

The formula does not account for recent rapid growth, such as what has happened in Maple Valley.

To Murray, none of the arguments against her plan have anything to do with what really matters: kids in the classroom. Who can argue that smaller classes are not worth it when the federal government spends less than 2 percent of its budget on education, she said.

There's no reason to pit a need for new teachers against a need to pay teachers more, because both are needed and the money is there for both, she said.

Murray was offered a hypothetical situation: Say her program passes, the government spends $12 billion but manages to hire only 50,000 teachers.

"Well, you know what? That would be about 20 kids times 50,000, a million kids total, that will all have had a better education because of this. There's no question to me, that's worth it."

Danny Westneat's phone: 206-464-2772. E-mail: dwestneat@seattletimes.com

-----------------------------------------------------------------.

---------------------- How many new teachers? ----------------------

Here are the estimated numbers of new teachers local districts could hire for 1999-2000 school year under the federal class-size reduction program Congress approved last year. Teachers must be placed in grades 1, 2 or 3.

New

District Allocation teachers

----------------------------------------.

Seattle 1,521,641 39

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Tacoma 1,065,350 27

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Highline 421,838 11

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Kent 371,432 10

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Everett 352,157 9

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Edmonds 342,667 9

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Federal Way 281,248 7

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Lake Washington 274,053 7

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Bellevue 230,186 6

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Bremerton 220,202 6

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Auburn 214,184 5

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Puyallup 201,197 5

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Mukilteo 197,369 5

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Renton 180,766 5

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Northshore 168,920 4

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Snohomish 88,796 2

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Issaquah 72,883 2

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Enumclaw 66,243 2

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Snoqualmie Valley 47,481 1

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Bainbridge Island 45,076 1

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Tahoma 43,330 1

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Mercer Island 33,361 1

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Eatonville 31,361 1

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Vashon Island 21,692 Less

than one

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - .

Estimated cost for each new teacher is $39,000, including recruiting, salary and benefits.

Source: U.S. Department of Education.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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