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Fact Checking Obama’s Class-Size Ad

By Alyson Klein — August 22, 2012 2 min read
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Last week, it was higher education. This week, the Obama campaign has released an ad that attacks presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s budget priorities—accusing him of being willing to cut federal education money and make up for it by raising class size.

The ad starts with a couple stating, “Some of our children’s greatest experiences have been in the smaller classrooms. ...” Then an announcer asserts: “But Mitt Romney says class sizes don’t matter ... And he supports Paul Ryan’s budget which could cut education by 20 percent. ... You can’t do this by shoving 30, 35 people into a class and just teaching to some test. ... These are all issues that really he personally cannot relate to. To be able to afford an education, to want the very best public education system for your children.”

Here’s the ad:

But do these claims hold-up? Let’s take a look.

On class size: The couple says that “Some of our children’s greatest experiences have been in the smaller classrooms.” Notice they don’t actually say that smaller classes improve student learning, an area of super-hot debate in education policy circles if there ever was one.

But Romney isn’t the only one who has questioned the value of small classes. Obama’s own secretary of education, Arne Duncan, also said in a November 2010 speech at the American Enterprise Institute that keeping class size down might not give schools the best bang for their increasingly scarce buck.

Duncan noted that small classes can be helpful at the elementary school level, but “in secondary schools, districts may be able to save money without hurting students, while allowing modest but smartly targeted increases in class size.” And said that high-performing countries, including South Korea, have higher class sizes than the United States.

Also, the Obama administration had a golden opportunity, in its Race to the Top program, to reward states (and now districts) for embracing certain education redesign priorities. On the list? Teacher evaluation based on student achievement, expanding charter schools, higher standards. Definitely NOT on the list? Reducing class size.

Of course, Obama poured some $100 billion into education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, plus added another $10 billion to save education jobs, arguing in part that the money would keep class sizes down.

On spending: The ad says that veep nominee Paul Ryan’s budget, which Romney generally supports, could lead to cuts of up to 20 percent in education. And it’s true that it “could.” But we really don’t know for sure. Ryan’s budget seeks big cuts in domestic discretionary spending, the broad category that includes education (plus environmental, justice, infrastructure, and a whole bunch of other programs.)

It’s impossible to say just how big the cuts to K-12 would actually be. Democrats can make a pretty strong argument that education is probably on the hit list, but no one knows just what the magnitude of the cuts would be and which programs they’d impact specially.
UPDATE: Mike Petrilli of Flypaper fame points out that the 20 percent-ish cut in the Ryan budget would only impact federal spending, which makes up 10 percent of K-12 funding overall. State and locals kick in the rest. Some folks might see the Obama ad and think the Obama folks were talking about total education funding.

The ad will air in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia on Thursday.