State tightening class-size initiative
Schools receiving funding must get formal waiver to exceed 15-1 ratio
By AMY HETZNER, Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel
Posted: May 31, 2006
In an effort to get a better handle on state money schools use to reduce class sizes, the state Department of Public Instruction plans to tighten its control over schools that seek to escape from standards set by a state class-size reduction program.
The state agency has imposed a new requirement that schools seek formal waivers before exceeding a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio guideline set by the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program.
DPI Deputy Superintendent Tony Evers acknowledged that requiring schools to get a waiver could end some practices the DPI had not known were in effect. Yet the requirement isn’t designed to limit flexibility schools have had, he said.
“Clearly, one of the things that’s important about SAGE – and that research tends to support – is there have to be small class sizes,” Evers said. “So if requests come in that don’t do anything to reduce class sizes, the possibility of them passing (through DPI) are slim.”
Previously, the DPI reached informal agreements with schools seeking to exceed the law’s 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio while still collecting money from the SAGE program.
SAGE is to pay out $96 million to 495 schools in the current school year. But in some cases, the DPI didn’t know how some schools were using their money until a March newspaper article outlined ways SAGE schools were exceeding the class-size standard, Evers said.
One of the schools, Dousman Elementary School in Waukesha County’s Kettle Moraine School District, used its SAGE funding to pay the equivalent of a full-time reading teacher even as class size reached 25 in one second-grade room.
Evers seemed to cite that case as a practice that would not be approved by DPI in its new procedure.
“I mean, that’s an extreme example, but the fact is the law is about reducing class size,” he said.
Kettle Moraine Superintendent Sarah Jerome said she was trying to get information about the change from the DPI. “I don’t know what they’re doing, nor do I know what its impact will be,” she said.
In Milwaukee Public Schools, where four schools were allowed to exceed the SAGE program’s class-size limit in second and third grades this school year, finance director Michelle Nate also said she hadn’t heard of DPI’s change and did not know if it would affect schools’ eligibility for extra funding.
Evers said the DPI has yet to formally notify districts about the change.
Unease over spending
Even though the DPI’s move to require formal waivers satisfies one concern that state Rep. Kitty Rhoades outlined in a recent letter to state schools Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, the Hudson Republican said she is still uneasy about how the DPI has allowed schools to spend SAGE money.
In particular, Rhoades questioned agreements that allowed schools to receive SAGE funds if they bring in extra teachers for reading and math lessons for classes that exceed the 15-student limit.
Rhoades said she would like her questions about the program answered before the state’s next budget cycle to make sure she understands how the money is being used. She said she’s not threatening funding for the program, which is supposed to get a $25 million boost in the 2007-’09 budget in a deal struck by Doyle and Assembly Speaker John Gard.
“I think that SAGE, by definition, was pretty clear – 15-to-1, grades K, 1, 2 and 3,” Rhoades said. “And apparently it’s different than that.”