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Don't Cut Education to Cut Class Size

January 18, 1987|GARY K. HART | Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) chairs the state Senate Education Committee

Children attending public schools in Mississippi or Oklahoma have a better chance of receiving individual attention from their teachers than do students in California. In fact, with the possible exception of Utah, California has the largest number of students per class in the nation.

Reducing class size is important not only for the individual attention that students receive, but also because critical thinking and communications skills, particularly writing, can best be taught in a smaller class. An important added benefit of smaller classes is that discipline is much easier to maintain.

On three separate occasions, I have introduced legislation to reduce class sizes in our schools. Each time the Legislature has approved my bill on a strong bipartisan vote, and each time Gov. George Deukmejian has vetoed my legislation.

In his State of the State address, Deukmejian seemingly reversed his position when he said: "This year, I am proposing that we phase out several less essential programs and redirect those funds toward a multi-year effort to reduce class size."

However, the "less essential programs" that he wants to eliminate (not phase out) include those that provide supplementary reading and math instruction in the early elementary grades, and others that encourage the gifted and talented.

If the governor's plan is adopted, the size of first-grade classes will be reduced by an average of about six students per class. But teachers will be hard pressed to make up for the loss of individualized instruction available to the slower students and will have to spend more time helping those students and less on the rest of the class.

The students having the greatest difficulties mastering the essential skills covered in these early years will fall further behind, a prescription for failure in their later years. Others in the class will have less of the teacher's time and attention at a critical point in their education. And our most talented students will lose a valuable educational enrichment.

My class-size reduction program has almost nothing in common with the governor's. It focuses on the high school years, where the performance of California students has been consistently below the national average. Under my proposal, schools would receive funding to reduce the size of classes where the most individual instruction is needed: the core curriculum of math, science, English and social science. Mastery of these skills is critical to success in college and the job market.

Reducing elementary school class size is a worthy goal, but not at the cost of eliminating effective programs that are equally worthy.

The governor's proposal to reduce class size shows a conscious effort to avoid the hard choices required to address the real problems in education. He is really trying to say that we can have a first-rate school system without paying for it.

The expression, "You get what you pay for," is not a cliche, it is a fundamental principle of life. California pays less for its school system than any other major industrial state. New York spends $5,700 per pupil, California just over $3,600. As a result, classes in New York are, on the average, 33% smaller than in our state.

There is a myth in California that our schools are in good financial shape. The governor has contributed to this myth; so has talk about the lottery, which provides less than 3% of our education budget. In fact, we rank 48th out of the 50 states in the percent of per-capita income devoted to elementary and high school education.

The governor's budget for education this year will only make things worse. As Bill Honig, the superintendent of public instruction, has pointed out, after inflation and student enrollment increases are considered, the governor is actually cutting support for education by 1%. Deukmejian's reaction to this charge has led to a public and increasingly personal fight with Honig that threatens to obscure the critical issues.

Educational reform in California is stalled. Four years ago we undertook a series of important reforms that demanded more sacrifice and a better performance from our teachers, our students and our schools. We require longer school years, tougher graduation requirements and harder courses, teacher proficiency tests and more rigorous evaluation of our schools. But we are failing to support these efforts with funding from the state.

Education is our most important investment in the future. The skills and abilities of the students now in our public schools will determine the success of our economy in the decades to come. Our parents and our grandparents understood this. Even though they had far less than we do, they were willing to make the investment to provide us with the finest education available. California's economic success is largely a testament to that spirit.

Rather than hiding behind convenient and shortsighted distortions, political leaders should have the courage to tell Californians the facts as to the true condition of education in our state. Only then will the people respond, supporting new taxes for education if necessary.

Unfortunately, our governor has failed this test of leadership.

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