NEW YORK -- Every morning at PS 148 in East Elmhurst, Queens, teacher Monique Bertolotti greets her 27 third graders, who speak English as a second language, with a reading exercise.
Classes began on Sept. 13, but because of the volume of students in her class, it was only Wednesday -- three weeks later -- that Bertolotti got to sit down with two new Colombian students, Nicole and Amy, to help them acclimate.
"Normally I would have sat down earlier to do an interview," Bertolotti said. "But there are just so many students." Her school lost $600,000 and eight teachers this year due to budget cuts.
"My situation isn't as bad as my colleagues'," Bertolotti continued. Next door, Joan Barnett has 32 third graders in a classroom without desks. "Really getting to small group instruction is harder," Barnett said.
According to the most recent national data available from the Education Department, student-teacher ratio declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 15.3 in 2008, when class sizes averaged at 20 in elementary schools and 23.4 in secondary schools.
But since then, as the recession took its toll, reports from around the country point to a surge in class sizes. A survey conducted in September by the United Federation of Teachers found a spike in class size grievances in New York City, with 6,978 classes reported as having more students than the contract allows. Even Texas, which has laws to keep class sizes down, granted more than 2,000 waivers to districts that couldn’t afford to keep the requisite number of teachers. Ruth Skow, president of McAllen, Texas's arm of the American Federation of Teachers, said one class at Memorial High School has 50 students this year. A Las Vegas elementary school kindergarten class has 41 students.
The Obama administration's jobs bill seeks to fill the gap, with $30 billion calculated to pay for 400,000 teacher jobs for a year. "Tell Congress to pass this bill and put teachers back in the classroom where they belong," Obama said in a Dallas school speech on Tuesday.
But beneath the surface of class size explosions because of budget cuts and layoffs and Obama's attempts to fix it, lies a debate about the importance of class sizes, and a move to deliberately increase them to enable investment elsewhere in education. Data-driven reformers such as Joel Klein often point to graphs that show that education expenditures -- largely personnel-based -- have ballooned as performance on exams have flat-lined. As teachers and their unions point to the importance of keeping student-teacher ratios low, reformers cite these statistics and say that unions advocate for smaller class sizes simply to retain high membership. This tension, coupled with the squeeze of budget cuts, leads some to believe that the next frontier of the national education debate will be a class size fight.
"Class size has been a sacred cow and I think we need to take it on," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at a March breakfast, as reported by Rick Hess, an education researcher for the American Enterprise Institute.
When asked to explain his comments further, Duncan told The Huffington Post that he'd rather have better teachers in larger classes. "My point there was that I think the quality of the teacher is so hugely important," he said. "I've said things like, give me the parent, give me an option of 28 children in a class with a phenomenal teacher or 22 children in a class with a mediocre teacher. If I was given that choice, I would choose a larger class size."
But that statement doesn’t sit well with teachers unions. "It's ridiculous to say, I'd rather have a good teacher and have that good teacher have to have a lot of kids," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "Kids need both." She described small class size as a tool teachers use, akin to a radiologist's X-ray machine.
While Duncan has little control over issues such as class size, since only 10 percent of the country's school spending comes from his office, he does have his bully pulpit. He said in a speech that he wants to "start a national conversation" about raising teacher pay. Since then, though, he has done little to clarify how that could be done when resources are scarce, except for saying it would involve "looking at how to redirect the money we are already spending." These statements taken together have led some to believe that Duncan is proposing a tradeoff of higher pay for slightly larger class sizes.
"You do the math and you see that the vast majority of our spending in education goes to staff," said Michael Petrilli, a former education government official who now leads the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "If you want to increase salary and benefits and keep the overall staff the same, it's impossible to do that without raising class sizes."
"It's a false choice," Weingarten said. "Pitting them against each other is saying to teachers that the only way that somebody can afford to pay you decently is if one of the tools that are really important for kids is taken away."
Queens teacher Bertolotti said she'd take smaller class sizes over increased pay. "I would rather forfeit a salary increase than increase class size because learning is greatly affected," she said.
How much does class size actually matter? The answer is complicated, and the research mixed. A 1980s Tennessee study, known as STAR, examined class size over four years and found the benefits of small class sizes to be pronounced in early years, as kids learn how to read and add, but less important in later grades. Since then, no similarly rigorous experiments have been performed.
"Where you're dramatically reducing class size, in low-advantage communities in lower grades when kids are learning things like how to read, that's been beneficial," Duncan said. "We've done it elsewhere, spent billions of dollars on class size without any demonstrable benefit. We need to talk about class size, and quality."
Duncan's statement reflects the findings of Stanford economist Eric Hanushek. "It obviously makes it easier for teachers to have fewer kids, but it doesn’t systematically mean much in terms of achievement," Hanushek said. "Having a good teacher -- as defined by student learning on tests -- matters more."
But Weingarten said the authors of those studies have never taught in public schools.
"Researchers that say that class size doesn’t matter look at market issues," she said. "Here, look at what parents are demanding. Parents demand smaller class sizes."
But Hanushek disagreed. "It's a convenient thing for unions to argue for," he said. "If you make class sizes smaller, you have to go and hire more people. If unions want to distract from any discussions about teacher quality, they'll talk about class size."
"This notion of trying to find a motive that's unrelated to teaching and learning is insulting," Weingarten shot back in response to this claim.
In the meantime, Christina Crouse in Corpus Christi, Texas, has 30 eighth graders this year. "Having more kids in the class has increased discipline issues," she said. "But I know of some people who have 40."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated the student-teacher ratio for public schools in 2008.