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Education chief Skandera not pushing smaller classes

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

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SKANDERA: Says smaller classes aren’t the answer

Gov. Susana Martinez’s Public Education Department is prioritizing investment in teacher development and training over reducing class sizes, PED Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera said Friday.

“There’s good research that says class size does not drive student achievement outcomes,” Skandera said during an explanation of her proposed public schools budget.

While reducing class sizes is advocated by many educators, PED’s current priority is “to make a better environment for our teachers and school leaders” through professional development and support, Skandera told Journal editors and reporters.

“I’m not going to say a teacher is mistaken in desiring a smaller class size if she or he believes they are going to be more effective,” she said.

“… But when we’re looking at what’s going to make the biggest difference for our kids, we are going to prioritize that, we have to.”

Like the governor’s PED budget proposal, the Legislative Finance Committee’s budget plan does not earmark funds to reduce class sizes.

The Legislature in recent years has waived statutory caps on class sizes to give school districts more flexibility in managing their budgets in years when state spending was being cut.

Now, some Democratic lawmakers say the state should put more money into the public school funding formula to help districts begin to move back toward smaller class sizes. The state is projected to have new revenue in the coming fiscal year, and lawmakers and the governor are debating how it might be spent.

A school spending proposal from the House Education Committee would set aside about $20 million dollars to restore the state law that caps class sizes.

“I would hope that the governor and the PED would see fit to go back where we can restore the mandated class sizes that are in law. … There is (new) money; it’s just where do we choose to use it?” said Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, a high school teacher and vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

“Certainly our parents know and understand the better education their child gets when they’re in smaller classes. … They get more attention,” he said.

Skandera, in the Journal interview, challenged assumptions about smaller class sizes and student achievement.

Skandera said parents, when given the option, likely would prefer having better-prepared teachers who can get their students up to speed.

“Their assumption is a smaller class size will get them there,” Skandera said of parent perceptions. “And the truth of the matter is teachers and their influence far outweigh class size.”

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said efforts to boost student success should not be isolated questions of professional development or reduced class sizes.

“You undermine your efforts in terms of providing professional development when you set up a class so large that it’s almost impossible to guide instruction with so many kids,” Trujillo said. “It can’t be one or the other. It has to be a combination of both.”

While state statute caps kindergarten classes at 20 students, elementary school classes between 22 and 24 students, and middle school and high school classes between 27 and 30 students, a state waiver has suspended those limits.

Some Democratic lawmakers are proposing this year that the state amend the Constitution to overrule the waiver and further reduce classes to 18 students for kindergarten through third-grade classes, 22 students for fourth- through eighth-grade classes and 25 for high school classes.

The Legislature has estimated that implementing the smaller class sizes compared with the statute’s caps would cost schools nearly $63 million a year.

Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-White Rock, a sponsor of the proposed constitutional amendment, said smaller class sizes should be one of the PED’s top priorities.

“I think we all want to get to the same end-goal. That’s increased student achievement,” Garcia Richard said. “My priorities are just different than theirs.”

In addition to teacher development, the PED budget includes increases in special reading programs for elementary students, extended school days for struggling students, information portals for parents and early dropout warning system.

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