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Accord Reached to Cut Class Size in Schools

Education: State leaders agree on historic reform plan for primary grades. But some districts cite obstacles.

July 04, 1996|ELAINE WOO | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Class sizes in California--the highest in the nation--could be dramatically reduced in the primary grades under an agreement reached early Wednesday by Gov. Pete Wilson and the state's top legislative leaders.

Resolving a key issue in the delayed state budget, Wilson and the legislators agreed to pump $771 million into the state's elementary schools to lower class size in kindergarten through third grade to 20 students per teacher.

Offering the largest single infusion of money for school reform in the state in 10 years, the class-size agreement is being hailed as a historic event for public education in California.

"For the state, it is quite clearly a watershed," said Theodore Mitchell, a former dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Services. "It really represents a commitment on the part of the governor, the superintendent and now the Legislature to focus attention on the fundamental conditions of education in the state."

If the ambitious undertaking succeeds, class size in the early elementary years would be at their lowest levels in more than 30 years.

News of the funding initiative stirred excitement in many school districts that were already planning smaller classes, and struggling to find ways to pay for them.

"I think this is the start of a renaissance" for public education in the state, said Walt Buster, the superintendent of the rapidly growing Clovis Unified School District in Central California.

But in other overcrowded school districts, officials said ruefully that the funding package in its present form may present insurmountable problems, rather than solutions.

At Santa Ana Unified, the largest kindergarten through 12th grade school district in Orange County with 50,000 students, Deputy Supt. Joseph Tafoya said Wilson's budget plan would not help its overcrowding because the district has no room for new classrooms, even portable ones.

"The concept of the 20:1 student-teacher ratio is a great idea educationally, but it doesn't work for us," Tafoya said. "We have a tremendous crunch problem. . . . The cost of acquiring land would be prohibitive. We've already maxed out the portables and the land. It's just not a reality for us."

Santa Ana administrators have had to put 29 of their 44 schools on year-round programs to address the growing problem of overcrowded classrooms.

Another problem is finding teachers, educators said Wednesday.

"Getting many teachers statewide who are trained to teach primary grade students is going to be a challenge," said Peter A. Hartman, superintendent of the Saddleback Unified School District. "It's probably going to be an impossibility for every district statewide to find enough qualified teachers to meet the governor's plan."

The class size package is based on the state's estimate that it will cost about $775 per student to reach the 20-students-per-classroom goal. Wilson and the legislators agreed to give schools $650 per student; local districts would have to come up with the remaining $125 or so per student that they may need to pay for smaller classes.

The money must be used to lower class sizes in the first and second grades, although districts have the option of applying the money to kindergarten and third grade as well.

The agreement gives districts the option of receiving a smaller amount of money--$350 instead of $650 per student--to lower class size only for the part of the school day devoted to reading and math.

And in addition to the money for new teachers and other costs, the state intends to spend $200 million to buy 5,000 portable classrooms, Senate budget analysts said.

School districts are not required to accept the incentive funds or reduce class size. But the political and parental pressure on schools to use the money will be enormous.

Class size is considered a crucial element of school reform, with most studies showing that the best conditions for learning include classes of no more than 15 students each. In California, elementary teachers often have classrooms of 30 or more students.

Some experts say the $775-per-student estimate of the cost of the dramatically smaller classes falls short of the actual cost of operating schools with only 20 students in each room. Those costs include hiring new teachers or, on crowded campuses, buying portable classrooms to handle the overflow of students no longer in classrooms.

That worries officials in giant districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, as well as smaller systems, such as San Marino.

"Even with $650 [per student], that wouldn't cover the cost for a new teacher," said Jack Rose, the associate superintendent of the San Marino Unified School District. "A first-year teacher with benefits costs $40,000. If you bring in a relocatable [portable classroom], that's $30,000. So one classroom can cost $100,000 very quickly."

In Los Angeles Unified, where at least a third of the 650,000 students attend campuses so crowded they operate year-round, officials received news of the class-size deal cautiously.

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