A teachers union effort to turn to the ballot box to do what a decade of contract negotiations failed to do -- reduce the number of students in often crowded, chaotic classrooms -- died yesterday when a petition drive fell short of the required 10,000 signatures.
The 8,500-member Baltimore Teachers Union, however, pledged to continue pushing for a cap on class sizes, a priority that it says will play no small part in deciding which mayoral candidate the union supports in city elections.
Linda Prudente, a union spokeswoman, said the petition drive, which began in May, yielded about 9,800 signatures by yesterday's deadline to put a charter amendment question on the city ballot next year. The names of a third of those who sign petitions typically are disqualified because they aren't registered voters or don't live in the city, so the union had concluded it would need at least 13,000 signatures.
"We're going to educate the entire Baltimore City population on why small class size is important," Ms. Prudente said. "It's obviously going to be an issue -- one of the issues -- we're going to hinge an endorsement [for mayor] on."
Some teachers, parents and lawmakers have long argued that classes with as many as 45 to 50 students force teachers to spend their time and energy playing baby-sitters trying to control chaos instead of focusing on the lessons at hand.
But smaller classes wouldn't come cheap: The union said its bid to reduce class sizes in all grades would require hiring nearly 1,000 teachers at a cost of more than $30 million a year.
The union's proposed charter amendment would have limited preschool and kindergarten classes to 22 students; elementary school classes to 25 students; middle school classes to 28 students; and high school classes to 33 students.
The union's petition drive coincided with an effort by seven City Council members to place a similar but more limited amendment on the ballot.
But the measure died in committee after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Law Department questioned its legality.
Councilman Carl Stokes, chief sponsor of the bill, said yesterday that he will continue seeking class size caps, perhaps by asking state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state board to set limits. Mr. Stokes, who had asked the city school board to impose such limits three years ago, expressed frustration that the school system has resisted them.
"Everybody who has any sense feels that class size is one of the most important issues for them and their children," said Mr. Stokes, a 2nd District Democrat who heads the council's Education and Human Resources Committee.
The city's 113,000-student school system has larger classes than do most districts.
But, residing in an environment with more than its share of poverty, single-parent homes, drug abuse and crime, city children need the individual attention that small classes afford more than do, say, their counterparts in the suburbs, Mr. Stokes said.
The council members' proposed charter amendment would have set limits for kindergarten through fifth-grade classes and cost only a fraction of what the union bid would have cost, Mr. Stokes said. The proposed charter amendment would have limited kindergarten through second-grade classes to 20 students and classes in grades three through five to 25 students.
While proponents of a cap suggest it would reduce disruptions and improve student performance, research on the subject is mixed. While some studies suggest a direct relationship between class size and performance, others find no correlation.
Superintendent Walter G. Amprey has opposed any cap on class sizes from the beginning. Imposing such limits, he said, would put too much emphasis on only one aspect of education, and detract from others. Rather than spending millions hiring more teachers, the school system must consider many priorities and decide how best to provide a mix of staff development, training and programs to improve education, he said.
"I just think that [a cap] focuses too much on one aspect of what we need to correct the situation," he said. "To zero in on that would take away from our efforts to look at other aspects. It seems to make class size the panacea."
He said he favors smaller classes but that a cap could force the cash-strapped school system to choose between hiring more teachers and providing other vital services such as more counseling or books.
The city imposed limits on class sizes about eight years ago, when Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns and the council agreed to provide $1 million each year to reduce class sizes. The effort began with kindergarten, and Mr. Burns' successor, Kurt L. Schmoke, extended it to first grade before discontinuing it.