Doing less with less

12/30/2012

Doing “more with less” is a mantra for politicians who want to apply private-sector efficiencies to government operations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that: Government is obliged to do the most it can with taxpayers’ hard-earned money, especially when those who work for private employers are also doing more with, and for, less.

Such slogans, however, don’t neatly apply to teachers and class sizes, especially in disadvantaged school districts where students need more individual attention. Virtually every education study correlates class size with student achievement, particularly for low-income students in early elementary grades.

A recent report in The Blade shows that the number of teachers in Ohio public schools continues to drop. That should disturb anyone who cares about Ohio’s future, though it’s hardly surprising from a state government that has slashed aid to essential public services while cutting taxes for the wealthiest residents.

Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly have cut $1.8 billion in aid to public schools in the current two-year budget. Those cuts have spawned millage requests to pick up the slack — extra taxes that local residents, still feeling the recession’s sting, are reluctant to approve.

Last month, voters defeated a 4.9-mill, 10-year levy for Toledo Public Schools that would have generated $13.3 million annually. Voters have not approved new levy money for the district’s general fund since 2000, and twice rejected ballot initiatives in 2010.

State records show that the number of full-time teachers in Ohio public schools fell by nearly 6 percent, to about 109,000, over the decade ending in the 2010-11 school year. Education association surveys suggest the decline has continued.

The drop in the number of full-time teachers in Toledo Public Schools was even more dramatic, according to the Ohio Department of Education, falling from 2,686 in 2001-02 to 1,430 in 2011-12.

An Ohio School Boards Association survey this year showed, with 268 of the state’s 613 districts responding, that districts have reduced staff by an average of 13 full-time employees each year since 2008, with some big-city districts cutting hundreds of employees. TPS didn’t respond to the survey.

A recent sampling of school districts across the state found that 24 of 30 reported fewer teachers this academic year. Teachers report they have more students and less classroom help.

Students from low-income homes with less exposure to travel, books, and computers often enter school a year or two behind their more-affluent counterparts. A significant number of poor children have an incarcerated parent.

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They need individual attention to catch up, and many experts say ideal class sizes in the lower elementary grades should not exceed 15 students. Fewer teachers also mean fewer elective courses, such as foreign languages and art, which develop more well-rounded students.

Governor Kasich says he wants to reform Ohio’s school funding system next year. But there’s little reason to believe school staffing levels will improve in the near term, as districts face less state aid, drops in property tax revenue, and tax-weary residents who reject new levies.

With larger class sizes, raising standards — especially lower-elementary reading proficiency, a priority for the governor — will become more difficult, despite an extraordinary and counterproductive emphasis on test scores.

School districts must increase efficiency by pooling resources, combining office functions, and pursuing mergers. But even the most efficient teacher can’t reach 30, or more, needy students.

Teacher staffing levels and class sizes must stay at reasonable levels, or Ohio will pay a heavy price when these children become adults.