The chart above shows the
average ratio of pupils to teachers in the 50 states for the
school year. A ratio of more than 20 students per teacher is generally
considered undesirable. In fact,
have adopted laws requiring a ratio of 20 students or less per teacher.
Note that the pupil:teacher ratio is NOT the same as average class
size. For example, to get average class size for grades K-3,
one must add 9 or
10 students to the pupil:teacher ratio.
The darkest blue states above generally have the most severe overcrowding
problems. But overcrowded school districts can be found within many of
the other districts.
By the 2024-2025 school year, the number of students attending public
schools will increase
by 6%. This trend is not uniform. Nevada will
experience a 26% increase in enrollment by 2024 while that of West Virginia will
decline by 11%.
We assume you're visiting this webpage because you're concerned about how
a proposed development project may impact local schools. If you are like most folks new to
this form of advocacy you probably think its both difficult and expensive to
prevent the impact. The good news is that its actually quite easy.
And you probably don't need a lawyer or any other professionals.
The reason is that its easy is because few issues generate as much public
ire as the prospect of development causing school overcrowding. By
turning public ire into political momentum you can get reforms enacted which
allow your locality to continue reaping the benefits of growth without
having a negative impact to schools. In fact, done right, the reforms
should improve the quality of education.
We call this
approach Equitable Solutions. We have a webpage devoted to
the approach where you'll find detailed advice on how to make it work for
you: Equitable Solutions webpage.
And when political action alone doesn't carry the day, the CEDS Smart
Legal Strategies approach usually allows our clients to prevail.
The research summarized below indicates that when enrollment greatly
exceeds the design capacity of a school that student academic performance
declines along with the "enjoyability" of school for students, faculty and
parents. Here are some of the impacts not cited in the research:
- A portion of the students may be forced to eat lunch early or late
in the day.
- Traffic congestion and pedestrian safety becomes more of a problem
at pick-up and drop-off times.
- Only a portion of parents can fit into the cafeteria or auditorium
to see their child perform.
- Parents of high school seniors may be forced to watch their kid
graduate on closed-circuit TV.
Clicking on the green text below will take you to the scientific study
quoted. One of the things which may strike you is the frequent
expressions of uncertainty with regard to findings.
California schools have long been among the most crowded in the nation.
2007 report characterized the impact as:
"Overcrowding creates unsafe
environments and makes teaching and learning more difficult. Schools may
need to teach students in auditoriums, gymnasiums, storage rooms, and other
areas never intended to be used for instructional purposes.
Schools with too little space may not be able to maintain specially equipped
rooms such as science labs or libraries because these spaces need to be
“flexible” for teaching multiple subjects."
study of factors affecting the number of high school students going on
to college noted:
"Overcrowding reduces students’ ability
to pay attention and increases school violence. In such
schools, students achieve less; rates of teacher and student absenteeism are
higher than at schools that do not have these problems. Sometimes
overcrowding is addressed by putting students on year-round, multi-track
schedules with fewer days of school. These students suffer interrupted and
lost instructional time; limited access to advanced courses and specialized
programs; ill timed breaks and correspondingly limited access to
extracurricular activities and enrichment programs; and poorer academic
Research shows that school overcrowding has varying effects on student
North Carolina study noted that:
crowded schools [>130% of capacity] have
a negative impact on reading achievement, but
no discernible impact on math achievement."
has also linked overcrowded schools to
Of course, overcrowding has an impact on teacher effectiveness and job
2012 study of the relationship between school variables and teacher
satisfaction, contained the following conclusion:
"As school budgets decrease and the
numbers of students increase, it is critical that school districts continue
to invest in efforts that will keep class sizes from becoming too large.
Perhaps smaller class sizes allow teachers to work with students who show
problematic behaviors or students with community challenges such as poverty
and underpreparedness more effectively; this idea will need to be explored
through further study. Nevertheless, smaller class sizes help teachers to be
more satisfied with their jobs and smaller class sizes have also been shown
to positively affect student achievement."
The U.S. Department of
Education notes that overcrowding increases wear and tear on a school.
As of the year 2016,
class size averaged 15 students in public schools and 12.2 students for
private schools. As stated above, this ratio is
NOT the same as average class size. For example, to get
average class size for grades K-3,
one must add 9 or
10 students to the pupil:teacher ratio.
According to a 2011
Brookings Institution report,
24 states require or actively promote a
reduction in class size. However, changing the national class size average
by just one student costs $12 billion per year in just teacher salaries.
Most discussions of the effect of class size on student performance begin
Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) conducted in Tennessee
beginning in 1985. Two Kindergarten to 3rd grade class sizes were
compared over a four-year period: 13 - 17 students per classroom and 22 - 25
students. The principal finding was that the smaller class size:
"produce substantial improvement in
early learning and cognitive studies and that the effect of small class size
on the achievement of minority children was initially about double that
observed for majority children, but in later years, it was about the same."
While the difference in performance of minority and majority students
disappeared in subsequent years, the students who benefitted from the
smaller K-3 class size continued to outperform students who were in the
larger class sizes.
studies have followed the students into adulthood and documented the
- 72% of STAR students graduated on time vs. 65% of other
- STAR students completed more advanced math and English courses in
- Drop-out rates among STAR students was 19% vs. 23% for others;
- More STAR students graduated with honors.
The authors of the
Brookings report cited earlier noted that while the most credible
studies of class size and student performance do show an improvement with
fewer students per teacher, the benefit is not uniform and, overall, it
may be relatively small. The problem is that there are
simply too few high quality studies to draw any firm conclusions about the
benefits of class-size reduction. The research indicates students in the
smaller classes performed at the same level as students with three more
months of school.
Class-size reduction has the greatest benefit for Kindergarten to Third
Grade students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Other actions that result in
expanding the number of highly effective teachers may
be more beneficial. But there is some evidence indicating that a smaller
class-size can contribute to better student performance when the teacher is
less well prepared and effective.
One study cited in the Brookings report noted that the following actions
were more beneficial than class size reduction: computer-aided instruction,
cross-age tutoring, early childhood programs, and increases in per
student instructional time.
However, given the tremendous investment in class-size reduction it would
be unthinkable to abandon this effort and return to larger classes
before the benefits have been thoroughly examined. In the meantime,
parents should aggressively oppose any action - or inaction - that allows
schools and classrooms to become more crowded.
How do you determine if a proposed development project
will cause school overcrowding? Well, if a school has portable classrooms
that are currently in use or average class size is in excess of 30
students, then you can probably assume it is overcapacity. Otherwise, you'll need to know:
and projected school capacity;
and projected enrollment;
the number of students added by
the project; and
how many students will come from other development proposals not
If your locality has
concurrency or Adequate Public
Facility requirements then this data should be readily available.
Try doing an internet search on the keywords "school" + "concurrency" +
"adequate public facilities" + "name of your town, city or county". If
this yields nothing then search for the master plan for your town, city or
county and for the school system. If recent, either plan may contain
the data you need. Otherwise, try the following steps.
School Capacity & Enrollment
Try an internet search using the keywords "capacity" +
"the school name". If this yields nothing then contact the officials
who oversee the school system (Board of Education, School Board, etc.).
Ask if they have data on the capacity and enrollment of the three schools
potentially affected by the project (elementary, middle and high school).
Of course they should have this data and it should be freely provided.
You could also try staff at each school, PTA officers or the school faculty.
Another option would be the
department for your state.
To estimate the impact of a project proposal on
student enrollment you need to know the effect of similar housing in your
area. If you're lucky the local or State education department has this
data in the form of
pupil yield tables. If not, then you may need to do some
On average, each U.S. household contributes
0.43 students to
public schools. About 70% of these students are in Pre-K to 8th
grade, the rest are in 9th to 12th grade. Of course pupil generation
rates vary considerably across the country and even within school districts.
They also vary by housing type.
In my locality (Baltimore
County, MD) a rental apartment may generate 0.0173 elementary (K-5)
students per year while a single-family detached homes yields 0.179.
Depending upon where the single-family detached home is located, the yield
may range from 0.088 to 0.298 elementary students per year. Variables
accounting for this range include
house size, income level, age, and other factors.
Student yields also vary with age of housing. According to the
Housing Survey, homes built between 2010 and 2015 had 26% more occupants
under the age of 18 when compared with all homes. This indicates
that the number of students coming from newer homes could be as much as 26%
higher than the average.
To get a rough estimate of impact divide the number of
elementary, middle and high-school students
attending public schools in your
locality by the
number of housing units. Next, find out how many
housing units are proposed with regard to the project of concern to you.
You can then multiply the number of units by the ratios for elementary,
middle and high school. Add these values to current enrollment for
each of the three schools impacted by the project to see if this causes
enrollment to exceed school capacity. To see an example of this
analysis go to page 9 in our
Ann Arbor report.
If the preceding analysis did not show that school
capacity would be exceeded, then you may wish to take into account other
project proposals that are moving through the review pipeline.
Development tends to cluster in space and time which may mean that other
projects have been proposed for the same general area. Your local
planning and zoning staff can tell you of any other projects. If staff
are not helpful then look at past planning commission minutes for other
projects in your area. Consult
maps prepared by the local school board of the service area of each
school to see if a project is within the boundaries.
The U.S. Department of
Education defines an overcrowded school as one where enrollment is 5%
above the design capacity. As of the year 2000,
22% of U.S. schools
were overcrowded. For example, Maryland assumes
a design capacity of
23 students per Grade 1 - 5 classroom. A school with 20 Grade 1 -
5 classrooms could accommodate 460 students plus Pre-K and K.
prevent overcrowding, school expansion and new school construction must keep
pace with increases in student enrollment. While mechanisms are
available for limiting increases in student enrollment, these can only be
used as short term solutions.
A number of states have adopted class size limits. Education Week
map showing the limits adopted by each state. However, the
adoption of a limit does not necessarily allow local government to say no to
development proposals that could cause individual schools or a school district
to become overcrowded. For this you need something like an Adequate
Public Facilities Ordinance.
Adequate Public Facility Ordinance
Wisconsin are among the states where local governments utilize an
Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). With regard to schools,
the APFO will prohibit the issuance of a building permit if the construction
of the home authorized by the permit would cause a school to exceed a
capacity threshold. Some
localities allow developers to pay for the cost to expand schools and
thereby proceed with development as the added capacity becomes available.
In addition to schools, an APFO may also apply to traffic congestion, water
and sewer capacity, or emergency services.
Depending upon how the APFO is written, the permit
issuance may be withheld for a year or two and even longer, but not
indefinitely. However, one State Supreme Court did uphold an 18-year
postponement and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 32-month postponement.
APFOs may also be known as concurrency
criterion. In this context, concurrency means that it must be
demonstrated that infrastructure (schools, roads, etc.) have the
capacity to accommodate a development project without undue impact.
There is a
legal theory that State legislative authorization may not be needed to
adopt APFO-like restrictions. The theory is that the power to restrict
growth which would cause excessive impact may be inherent in zoning and
other growth management powers already granted to local government by the
For further information on Adequate Public Facility laws see:
The prevention of overcrowding begins with a
comprehensive, long range master planning process. The organization in
charge of schools (Board of Education, School Board, etc.) develops a plan
showing anticipated changes in student enrollment and school capacity.
The local legislative body (county-city council, board of
supervisors-alderman, etc.) adopts a master plan for how future growth will
be managed. Policies are adopted with regard to classroom size and
what degree of school overcrowded will be permitted, which should be none.
The two plans are adjusted to minimize the probability that class size will
be exceeded due to school overcrowding.
This planning process usually works fine as long as
growth and other factors proceed as anticipated. Many localities
update their plans every five or six years to respond to changes.
Others adopt local or sector plans to account for the unique characteristics
of specific areas within a town, city or county.
A major unanticipated event was the 2008 recession.
Since the start of the recession in 2008, state funding for schools has
declined. In fact,
35 states now spend less on school infrastructure when compared to
pre-2008 figures. The recession caused a slow-down in the new
residential development which adds students as well as school expansion or
new school construction. While you would think the two would balance
out, many localities are adding portable classrooms while adjacent
jurisdictions are closing recently completed new schools.
In some states a local government can deny
approval for a proposed development project which conflicts with a master
plan element such as one prohibiting school overcrowding. But in many
states the prohibition must also appear in the zoning ordinance or other
regulations. And in some the State legislature must first adopt
enabling legislation allowing local governments to restrict growth causing
overcrowding. An example is an Adequate Public Facility Ordinance.
A local government can expand the area it regulates
through a process known as annexation. Usually an area adjoining a
town or city is annexed into the municipal boundary. In most cases the
majority of property owners within the proposed annexation area must agree.
However, the process is usually initiated by a development company seeking
access to water and sewer services which then allow a property to be development
far more intensely when compared to that possible with well and septic.
Frequently there must be a finding that the annexation is consistent will
the master plan. In fact, responsible growth management dictates that
an annexation should not be considered unless it was studied during the last
master plan update and found to have a positive effect on the quality of
life of all residents. A key finding should have been that the
annexation will not result in school overcrowding.
Through zoning a local government determines what uses
may be made of a portion or every parcel of land within its boundaries. The Zoning
Ordinance will also set forth limits such as number of housing units per
acre, height limits, setbacks from property lines, etc. In many
localities the range in housing units allowed per acre ranges from 0.10 to
16 or more. So a ten acre project might be developed as just one home
or more than 160 apartments. The number of students added to local
schools could vary accordingly.
In most localities, the final decision-maker on
rezoning requests is the legislative body. If your locality has a
mayor or county executive and a city-county council, then it is the council
which makes the decision on rezoning petitions. Master plan
conformance will be one of the primary decision-making criteria with regard
to a rezoning. If your master plan sets the goal of preventing school
overcrowding and you present data showing overcrowding will occur then you
may win provided you pursue the general advice provided on our
Equitable Solutions and Smart
Legal Strategies webpages. Rezoning decisions tend to be driven as
much by politics as fact and law. If the master plan is silent on
school impacts you may still convince the decision-making body to say no by
mobilizing the support of parents of the students attending the impacted
schools. For further detail on this strategy option see Chapters 36
and 39 in the free CEDS book How To Win Land
Conditional Uses &
Most zoning ordinances will list uses allowed "By-Right" and those requiring
a Conditional Use or Special Exception Permit. The uses allowed with
the Permit are generally compatible with others allowed within a given
zoning district, but occasionally may cause undue impacts. It is for
this reason that an applicant seeking approval for the Condition Use-Special
Exception Permit is usually required to go through a hearing process.
The purpose of the hearing is to determine if any undue impacts may occur.
If impacts are found to be likely then conditions may be imposed that will
resolve the impact. If impacts will be excessive then the Permit may
be denied. Some of many possible conditions which may resolve
excessive school impacts are:
postponing the project until school capacity is
providing a new school site;
paying for a portion of the cost of increasing
school capacity; or
improving the safety of students walking to school
by putting in sidewalks, trails or bike lanes.
One of the more extensive reviews of
relevant literature led three researchers to conclude that the best
solution to school overcrowding was to build more schools; not to add portable
classrooms or to initiate year-round schooling.
Increasingly people resist paying the additional taxes
needed to cover the cost of providing new roads, water and sewer services
and schools required for new development. One option to
generate additional funds for these and other infrastructure needs is to
charge development companies an impact fee to cover the cost of school
expansions or new school construction. Impact fees are also assessed to cover the costs of
building new roads, extending water-sewer lines and for other infrastructure
As of 2015,
29 states had passed legislation allowing local governments to charge
impact fees. In 1987, Texas became the first to adopt this
School impact fees are only required for
residential development. The fees vary by housing type based on pupil
generation - the more students coming from a housing type, the higher the
fee. Impact fees are based on the per student cost to construct school
buildings and other infrastructure. Ongoing expenses like teacher
salaries are not factored into the fee.
Following is a sampling of school impacts fees.
||Impact Fee Per Single-Family Detached
Montgomery County, MD
Orange County, CA
Lake County, FL
School Boundary Adjustment
If you have three elementary schools with abutting
service areas and one is overcapacity while the other two have excess space,
it makes sense to adjust the boundaries to resolve the issue. If such
adjustments are rare then the overall impact is likely beneficial. However, some
schools districts have gone from rare to frequent boundary adjustments.
Studies of students
subject to frequent school changes show reduced performance. The
U.S. General Accounting
Office found that students who attend three or more schools by the 8th
grade are at least four times more likely to drop out of school. A
noted that 41% of highly-mobile students are low-achievers compared to 26%
non-mobile students. These findings indicate that school boundary
adjustments should remain rare.
Also known as portables or trailers,
31% of all U.S.
schools had portable buildings as of the 2012-13 school year.
2004 study of California portable classrooms noted that many had
significant cooling and ventilation problems. A
of Idaho and Washington state portable classrooms found that elevated carbon
dioxide concentrations correlated with a 10% to 20% increase in student
2009 paper reported that:
"No significant impact
of portable classrooms on teacher perception, teacher morale, teacher job
satisfaction, student achievement, and behavior is detected. Negative
student attitude is found in one of the studies reviewed. Technical testing
shows negative relationships between portable classrooms and health and
safety conditions, but the permanent structures are sometimes worse."
Traditionally, students attend school for nine months (180 days) with
summers off. This agrarian calendar is a remnant of the days
when students were needed for summer farm work. A number of school
districts have experimented with year-round schools as a solution to
overcrowding. Also, the school day is extended with some students
beginning early and others later in the day.
pie-chart below illustrates a
typical year-round calendar. The approach certainly makes more
efficient use of available classroom space and should achieve a class-size
reduction. Educators have long noted that
over a long
summer vacation students lose a portion of what they learned during the
previous school year. So, in theory, a shorter summer gap should
improve academic performance. But available research indicates student
performance may decline.
on a multitrack year-round calendar results in a drop of 1–2
percentile points relative to a traditional calendar in national rank on
reading, math and language scores."
However, an exhaustive
of year-round schools in North Carolina found no significant difference
in student performance.
A review of studies
of extended school day and year programs from 1985 to 2009
revealed that definitive conclusions could not be drawn about the effects
due to poor study design or flawed assessment methods.