The cost of smaller class sizes
Since the Legislative Auditor General released his report on the funds the Legislature appropriated to reduce the average class size in Utah, the pundits have been wringing their hands. Apparently to everyone’s surprise and dismay, Utah class sizes are still the largest in the nation. For anyone even vaguely familiar with Utah, this audit only confirmed what we and many in the business community have said for years about Utah education: class size reduction is an unrealistic goal in Utah.
The educational merits or demerits of class size reduction have been debated for years. Parents intuitively prefer them, but the large scale tests of class size reduction show little improvement in student achievement unless average class size gets down to about 15. The cost of achieving that average class size would be monumental. And there are a host of other education proven reforms that would provide much larger gains in student achievement at a fraction of the cost.
Utah’s average elementary class size is 26. In addition, Utah classrooms will swell by more than 160,000 over the next decade. On top of that, published reports indicate that Utah began the current school year with hundreds of vacant teaching slots.
This teacher shortage means that Utah’s current average salary and benefits package of $55,034 per year is not attracting enough applicants to meet existing demand. Those vacant teaching positions, plus the others necessary to bring Utah’s average class size to 15, would be even more expensive. For illustration purposes, however, we’ll assume the cost only goes up to $60,000. That means Utah would have to spend another $516 million every year just to hire the 8,600 teachers necessary to get Utah class sizes down to 15.
That calculation ignores the on-going surge in Utah enrollment. When the 160,000 new students hit Utah schools over the next 10 years, Utah will need another 6,222 elementary teachers to maintain an average class size of 15. Assuming the same $60,000 total compensation package for these teachers means Utah would pay $373.3 million for these teachers. All told, Utah would need to hire nearly 15,000 more teachers, at a total ongoing cost of $889 million.
Add in the capital costs necessary for each of these teachers to have their own room, and the cost of reducing class size to 15 becomes staggering. As our October study, “Education Growth Projections in Utah: 2008-2022,” showed, Utah taxpayers will have to purchase $6.365 billion in land and buildings to house the surge of students entering Utah schools. If reducing average class size to 15 requires the same proportional increase in capital costs as this analysis projects in salaries and benefits, those capital costs could easily exceed $10 billion.
How much would meaningful class size reduction cost? This analysis shows we’d have to increase ongoing education spending by nearly $900 million per year. And our capital costs would dwarf that increase. Given class size reduction’s mixed record in raising student achievement and Utah’s unique demographics, class size reduction seems a fool’s errand.
Would it be possible, even laudable to instead increase average teacher pay, and thereby attract the best and the brightest into Utah’s classrooms? When smaller class sizes are what increase the number of teacher union dues payers, don’t expect the unions to make teacher pay a higher priority than class size.