The number of students per teacher in a classroom has been an issue in collective bargaining since the first contract negotiations began in Michigan more than thirty years ago. Unions maintain that smaller classes allow teachers to spend more time with each student, thus boosting educational achievement. Consequently, many of Michigan's school districts have negotiated language that affects class size into their bargaining agreements.
Over a third of collective bargaining agreements in Michigan currently establish a maximum number of students for each class and provide for mandatory teacher salary bonuses any time this maximum is exceeded. Some contracts mandate that teachers be paid an additional $1 to $4 per day for each student over the maximum. Other contracts specify a $75 bonus per additional student per semester.
Negotiating smaller class sizes has proven to be a costly arrangement for school districts, especially those with growing student populations. Smaller classes mean that more teachers must be hired and put onto the district's payroll, which causes education costs to increase. An analysis of union proposals from 1966-1968, the first two years after collective bargaining was in effect in Michigan, revealed that the proposed class size provisions would have added $3 million to $6 million to affected schools' budgets. School officials admitted that the proposals "would have been extremely costly to grant because of the necessity of hiring many new teachers."105
Charles Rehmus and Evan Wilner concluded in The Economic Results of Teacher Bargaining: Michigan's First Two Years:
Most teacher bargaining requests have included proposed limitations on class size. While school administrators and most school board members are sympathetic with the teacher preference for smaller classes, class size limitations have severe cost impact. A simple example makes the point. Reduction of average class size from 30 to a negotiated maximum of 25 students in a class would result in a 16-2/3-percent increase in teacher salary costs.
Establishing class size requirements within a collective bargaining agreement restricts the school administration's decision-making about the most effective use of staff, space, and scarce financial resources.
There is also no evidence that supports the main justification for these proposals; namely, that smaller classes produce improvements in student performance. Education reformer Chester Finn explains the cycle:
Parents take for granted that smaller classes mean better education. Teachers cheer any move to shrink their classroom populations. Unions get more members. Administrators get more staff. [yet] there's no credible evidence that across-the-board reductions in class size boost pupil achievement.107
Finn goes on to cite University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek's recent study of the relationship between class size and student performance. Hanushek reportedly found that between 1950 and 1994 the student-to-teacher ratio dropped by 35 percent, from an average of 30 students per class to the current average of 22. At the same time, spending has increased to its highest level and student performance on standardized tests has not improved.108 Hanushek concluded that "there is little systematic gain from general reduction in class size."109
School districts should remove class size limits from collective bargaining agreements.
Proposals to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio are costly to districts and needlessly restrictive on administrators who must decide on the most effective uses for available resources, including teachers. The school board and administrators should be left free to decide how best to allocate scarce resources most effectively