I was incredibly excited to start the 2015 2016 school year. After spending twelve years in a portable classroom, our high school moved into a brand new building, full of sunlight, windows, and classrooms. We even have empty rooms. But, my room is far from empty. As soon as the construction company gave us “occupancy” I was in my room trying to figure out how to arrange my 30 desks. I settled on a U shape because I like to be able to easily access all of my students when they need assistance and the arrangement is conducive for whole class discussion. Prior to the beginning of the year, I watched my rosters and when the first day arrived, I had 36 students in one class period. Soon the emails were flying among our staff, 38 students here, 40 students there.
Here’s the good news-parents want their kids to come to our school. I love that! Enrollment is up and admittedly, creating a balanced schedule is challenging for small schools that try to offer competitive courses. Our union has bargained language (I helped bargain that language) that creates limits to the number of preps a core teacher teaches so this also places a hardship on the schedule and can tie the hands of the registrar and administrators. I know that all stakeholders in my school see this as a problem. I don’t place the blame with them. I had faith that we could all put our heads together and come to a solution. Afterall, we are smart people-we can figure this out. I also believed that no one was going to argue that having 38 students in a math class was a good idea. Now nine weeks into the semester, my excitement is far more contained, the dust has settled and adjustments have been made. In order to bring class sizes down, a few staff members agreed to give up their prep period so that a few extra class periods can be placed in the schedule, creating more scheduling flexibility. I don’t have 36 students anymore–I’m now down to 32. The classroom still feels packed and it is a challenge to manage all class discussions let alone mobilizing to assist students on assignments.
I suppose I could blame all sorts of factors. But I can’t help but feel that my school and students could have seen some relief with 1351. Voter approved Initiative 1351 would have reduced K-12 class sizes. While the initiative may have not directed the legislature to increase taxes or reallocate funds directly, approval of the initiative should have been viewed by the legislature as a mandate from the people. When the 2014-2015 legislature delayed the implementation (see the Associated Press article from July 9, 2015) of the initiative by four years, they sent a message to voters and to my students. My current students will see no immediate relief from the legislature. How frustrating it is to to tell my students that the popularly elected legislature cannot figure out a way to enact a voter approved initiative that would directly impact their learning. How is it that a legislator can see class size as a ‘luxury’ and not a necessity?
As our state legislature and court system evaluate what a basic education is in Washington, I can’t help but think that basic education must encompass quality instructional time between a teacher and each student. While it’s challenging to quantify what quality instructional time looks like, it’s not a reach to assume that students in smaller classes have more access to a teacher during class time than students in larger classes. It’s difficult to run around and work one on one with students on the writing process when you have 32 in a class. Is that what a basic education looks like?
What is the purpose of democracy if an act passed by the electorate in a democratic manner is set aside by the legislature? I teach government and politics to high school seniors and our legislature has failed to recognize what democracy looks like. How do I explain to my 17 and 18 year old students that voting matters when the outcome of an election can be suspended by the legislature? Do I chalk that up to the Madisonian Model of checks and balances? I have to admit-that’s not an example I intend to use with my students. With the legislature under pressure again, I hope that 1351 isn’t dead. I hope that democracy will eventually rule. I have to believe that because it’s the foundation of the course that I teach. What message would I be sending to my kids about the power of democracy? I refuse for it to be the same message being sent to them by our legislature.