The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has proposed further reducing class size caps in Minneapolis Public Schools, as part of a suite of proposals the union calls “sustainable workload.” In 2022, the union successfully added class size caps to its contract after a three week strike. Last spring, the State Legislature made class sizes a mandatory topic of bargaining for school districts statewide.

Minneapolis Schools Voices shared data earlier this week that show the average MInneapolis Public Schools elementary school class size is under 25 students.

Smaller class sizes are popular with teachers, as well as parents and caregivers. There is a long history of states and individual districts enacting policies to reduce class sizes. These policies became popular after an experiment in Tennessee in the late 1980s that showed lowering class sizes from 30 to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade increased students’ scores on standardized tests. More recent research on class size reductions has shown more mixed results.

Minneapolis Schools Voices examined 2022-23 class size data for district elementary schools. As we previously reported, the average elementary class size was just over 22 students. Three percent of elementary classrooms had more than 30 students. Minneapolis Public Schools has one of the lowest ratios of licensed teachers to students in Minnesota.

Under former Superintendent Ed Graff, Minneapolis Public Schools began targeting smaller class sizes through its budget process. Using what the district calls a “predictable staffing model,” each school receives funding based on its expected enrollment and the district’s target for class size at each grade level.

In the union’s current contract, classrooms that exceed those specified in the contract are referred to a staffing adjustment committee. The contract provides a range of possible ways to mitigate class sizes that are over the cap, including moving students or staff, adding non-licensed support, or paying a stipend to teachers who teach in classrooms over the caps.

The union is proposing reducing the current class size caps and creating school-level committees that would determine how to handle classrooms that exceed the cap. Those committees would include the principal, impacted teachers, building steward and parent representatives from the school’s PTA or PTO. Similar committees are currently in place in St. Paul Public Schools.

A proposal for school committees that included parents was proposed in Portland, Oregon this fall, during the month-long strike by Portland Public Schools teachers. The proposal was ultimately abandoned because of concerns about student privacy if parents or caregivers were on class size committees.

The current contract also specifies a range of conditions under which the district does not have to follow the class size caps. These include enrollment dropping below 20,000 students or entering statutory operating debt. The union’s proposal would eliminate this language from the contract.

If the new proposal was applied to 2022-23 classrooms, 47% of classrooms would have exceeded the proposed caps, compared to 10% of classrooms that exceeded the current caps, based on Minneapolis Schools Voices analysis of class size data. Nearly 90% of current kindergarten classrooms would exceed the new caps.

The proportion of classrooms that would have exceeded the proposed class sizes varies across the district. For elementary schools that feed students into Washburn High School, 72% of elementary classrooms would have exceeded the proposed caps, while just 31% of the classrooms that pathway to Henry High School were larger than the proposed caps.

Under the proposal, class size caps would continue to be smaller in schools where most students qualify for free or reduced price meals. Based on Minneapolis Schools Voices analysis of district data, 55% of elementary school classrooms where most students qualify for educational benefits would have been above the proposed caps this school year. In classrooms where fewer students qualify for educational benefits, 41% would have been above the proposed caps.

If the district were to add a classroom where the average class size would have exceeded the proposed caps, in 2022-23, the district would have needed to add 137 classrooms to its elementary schools. Hiring so many additional teachers could be challenging for the district. For comparison, the district budgeted to add 133 intervention teachers this year, and started the year with over 20% of classroom positions unfilled at the start of the school year. Most of the vacancies were in schools where the majority of students are students of color and qualify for free or reduced price meals.

Adding a classroom increases the district’s costs by 1.2 times the cost of the salary and benefits of the classroom teacher. The additional 20% pays for a licensed educator to cover the paid preparation time of the classroom teacher. At the current cost, adding the additional classrooms would cost the district about $15 million per year.

The district has not yet responded to our public data request submitted in July 2023 for class size data for middle and high school classrooms in the 2022-23 school year. Minneapolis Schools Voices has also submitted a public data request for class size data for the current school year, which the district has not responded to yet.