CARSON CITY — Nevada’s schools chief faced a barrage of retorts Friday from state lawmakers after suggesting class sizes shouldn’t be high on their education priority list.
“In an ideal world I would ask that you lift class size restrictions” and let local school districts decide how best to spend their resources, Superintendent James Guthrie said during a joint meeting of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.
While agreeing that class size matters, he said, “An effective teacher trumps all we know about class size,” adding, “in an ideal world … I wouldn’t be concerned about class size.”
To Democratic lawmakers who have put class size reduction and expansion of early learning programs at the top of the legislative agenda, Guthrie’s words were like snapping a red flag in front of a snorting bull.
Sen. Debbie Smith, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said Nevada has had class size restrictions for first through third grades for years but has never fully funded them. During budget cuts over the past five years, districts were allowed to increase class sizes and apply for variances to exceed limits even more.
“If we didn’t fund class size I’d hate to see what our class sizes would be,” said Smith, D-Sparks.
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said allowing class sizes to balloon would “set our teachers up for failure” for meeting new evaluation standards coming online.
She also dismissed Guthrie’s reference to a decades-old study from Tennessee that found while small class sizes had value in the first grade, effectiveness diminished after that.
“I can give you a real-life study that might work better,” Kirkpatrick chided.
Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said legislators have witnessed the “systematic dismantling” of public education over several budget cycles, when more than $700 million was cut from K-12 during the recession. Class size, he said, “is probably the one thing we’ve been able to hold on to, a level we won’t go below.”
Bobzien said while he might support eliminating class size limits at some point “when we’re trying to hold this whole system together with duct tape and baling wire … we’re not there yet.”
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is recommending increasing funding for K-12 education by $135 million over the upcoming two years, for a general fund total of around $2.5 billion. Of that, $335 million is targeted for class size. Sandoval’s initiatives include $20 million to expand all-day kindergarten to more at-risk schools and $14 million for English language learning programs.