On September 4, high schools across Seattle opened with outrageously large class sizes and students scrambling to secure the classes they need to graduate on time. Seattle Public Schools (SPS) needs to hire dozens of teachers with specialized certifications. Even if those teachers can be found, it will be months before they are in the classroom.
Every student deserves to start school with a classroom, a teacher, and a reasonable number of classmates. Our teachers are superheroes, but they can’t do their work as well if they have 35+ students in their classes. Students can’t learn if they don’t have an assigned class.
This crisis was preventable. In February, District staff issued a preliminary budget that predicted a drop in high school enrollment. In May, SPS presented enrollment data to the School Board based on actual student registrations. This information showed that SPS had registered 1,400 more students than were included in the February budget. That’s an entire high school worth of students!
However, rather than plan for this remarkable increase in high school enrollment by hiring additional teachers, District staff instead proceeded to lay off teachers already working for SPS. They asserted that they expected a sharp decline in enrollment to justify this round of layoffs and that the older budget predictions were more reliable than registration data. Instead, even more students than were pre-registered showed up on the first day of school.
SPS now has the challenging task of hiring as many as 50 high school teachers district-wide. It’s no surprise that it’s hard to hire good teachers after the school year has started. While all SPS high schools are short-staffed, some schools have a larger gap between their official budget and the start of school enrollment. Rainier Beach should have 4 more teachers than their official budget. Chief Sealth should have 5 more. Roosevelt should have 7 more teachers. Garfield should have a staggering 11 more teachers than the budget allowed.
The next step in this crisis is predictable. Students across the district will suffer with large class sizes. Some classes will be taught by long term substitutes instead of permanent teachers. The burden of overcrowded classrooms will fall heaviest on those furthest from educational justice. And we’re set up to do this all again next year unless we change course.
Additionally, the teacher shortage can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. High school students with flexibility may decide to simply leave these overcrowded classrooms for other options, including online coursework or charter schools. When they do that, SPS loses funding from the state.
The change we need to make is straightforward. We need to prioritize teachers and students in the budget process. The budget needs to be updated to match enrollment information as it is available. If we had done that this year, we would be talking about hiring only 7 high school teachers district-wide. We need to do what it takes to have a seat for every student in a fully-staffed classroom.