In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson published a story about an emperor who loved to show off his clothes. Two swindlers convinced him to buy a suit they claimed to be unutterably beautiful but would be invisible to anyone who was either stupid or not fit for his position. The emperor sent two trusted servants to view the “clothes.”
Not wanting to be thought stupid or undeserving they praised the “clothes” which the emperor promptly donned for a procession through town. The townsfolk also praised the emperor’s “beautiful clothes” until a small child said: “But he has nothing on.” The townsfolk then whispered this among themselves but the emperor, head held high, finished the procession.
Anderson might have written a sequel were he alive today to observe politicians talk about class size reduction programs. Democrats universally praise reduced pupil-teacher ratios as the answer to all of public education’s woes. Teachers and parents love the idea. The teacher union is also a staunch supporter because the additional membership and dues it brings in substantially increase the union’s political clout.
All too many Republicans are also publicly in thrall of class size reduction. In California Republican Governor Pete Wilson famously dangled huge bonuses out to school districts that would agree to cut class sizes to a 20-1 pupil-teacher ratio. This produced a scramble to buy modular classrooms and hire teachers who made that state’s gold rush look like child’s play. The result? California continues to languish below struggling Nevada in the student achievement barrel.
Not to be out done, Nevada, in 1989, enacted the Class Size Reduction Act aimed at reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in the primary grades to 16-1. Unlike California, Nevada did not provide money for additional classrooms. To the extent built they had to be paid for by local school bonds so in many cases the ratios were attained by having two teachers in a classroom of 32 pupils.
In 2000, an evaluation was conducted for the Nevada Senate by the Legislative Counsel Bureau with input from the Nevada Department of Education. The result? Parents and teachers loved the program but according to the study: “No exceptional results in achievement scores were reported.”
Nevada legislators wisely noted parents and teachers vote, so they continued the class size reduction program. By June 30, 2013, Nevada will have spent $2.1 billion in direct costs of funding class size reduction, not including local funds expended, to build new classrooms.
The enormity of this folly was evident when, as reported in the Reno Gazette Journal last week, school officials told the legislature reducing class size by one child would cost Clark County $32 million and Washoe County $20.8 million.
As recently reported in the Nevada Journal: “After surveying 277 studies that attempted to correlate pupil-teacher ratio and student achievement … there is little reason to believe that smaller class sizes systematically yield higher student achievement. While some studies point in that direction an almost equal number point in the opposite direction. Teacher quality, not class size, makes the most difference.”
And Nevada continues to compete with California for the bottom of the student achievement barrel while Utah, which never got sucked into the class size reduction fraud, looks down at both from its perch near the top.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is described as “a metaphor wherein the overwhelming majority of observers willingly share in a collective ignorance of an obvious fact despite individually recognizing the absurdity.”
It seems like we could have spent that $2.1 billion more wisely.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates and has served on the Washoe County & Nevada State GOP Central Committees; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.