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Shrinking Budget Threatens Limit on Class Sizes

Reacting to fiscal crisis, lawmakers, districts press for more than 20 students in K-3 rooms.

May 01, 2003|Duke Helfand and Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writers

Lawmakers and educators are mounting aggressive new challenges to California's class-size reduction program, saying that the popular reform costs too much and produces mixed results.

One bill aimed at raising the cap from 20 to 22 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade won approval Wednesday in the state Senate's Education Committee despite opposition from teacher unions and parent groups. But a nearly identical bill was defeated in the Assembly Education Committee.

Other legislation that would raise the limit to as many as 25 students was still under consideration.

Dozens of school systems, meanwhile, are planning to raise their primary-grade classes to as many as 32 students to reduce their costs, as they anticipate overall reductions in state funding. Districts are allowed to opt out of the state's voluntary class-size program, but they forfeit $906 per student that the state pays for the smaller classes. Many districts said the state money does not cover the cost of extra teachers and classrooms.

Advocates of the proposed laws said the measures would give districts badly needed flexibility -- allowing them to exceed the current cap in some classes as long as they maintained a schoolwide average of 20 students in the primary grades.

That change would reduce the number of teachers that schools must hire and would free up classroom space. It would save more than $200 million, by one estimate, for school districts statewide, but could lead to layoffs.

"If we don't gain this flexibility, class-size reduction will die a slow, painful death," said Supt. Jim Fleming of Orange County's Capistrano Unified School District, which may partly withdraw from the state program and possibly raise class sizes in grades 2 and 3 next year to as many as 32 students to help close an anticipated $20-million shortfall.

Even if the state approves an increase from 20 to 22 students, the Capistrano district may still have to abandon class-size reduction in one of those grades and possibly cut 75 teachers' jobs, Fleming said. "I [may] have to give up what is arguably the most important reform initiative in the country in the last 20 years," he said.

Those who want to preserve smaller classes said the new bills, if enacted, would erode academic achievement gains realized since the reform was introduced seven years ago by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Teachers and parents argue that students get more personal attention and cause fewer disciplinary problems in classrooms with fewer youngsters. The California Teachers Assn. and the California State PTA are leading a lobbying campaign to block the legislation.

"Increasing class size would absolutely destroy our momentum as teachers and [our] efforts undertaken to improve student learning," said Nancy Waltz, president of the San Juan Teachers Assn., which represents teachers in suburban Sacramento.

Waltz and others also worry about the loss of teachers. A report released this week by the Commonweal Institute, a Menlo Park think tank, concluded that expanding class sizes to 22 students could eliminate more than 6,000 classroom positions statewide.

"This could scare off many well-qualified potential educators," said Leonard Salle, Commonweal president. "It's just moving in the wrong direction."

Class-size reduction was introduced in 1996, when state coffers were flush. Since then, California has spent more than $10 billion on the reform.

But last year, an independent study commissioned by the state questioned the value of the investment, and said the reform had brought thousands of non-credentialed teachers into California classrooms.

The report, by researchers from Rand Corp. and other groups, found "only limited evidence" linking testing gains to smaller classes.

Still, the researchers recommended some of the changes now envisioned by one of the bills in the Legislature, saying the flexibility would only modestly affect classes.

The Senate committee approved a bill, written by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), allowing classes to rise to 22 students as long as the school averages remained at 20 and only credentialed teachers led any classes larger than 20 students.

A similar measure, which also originated with Sher, lost by one vote in the Assembly committee, but that panel may review the newest Senate version later.

The Senate's education panel also considered a bill by Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) that would raise the cap to 25 students, but postponed a vote until next week.

Their backers said the bills would essentially preserve the class-size reduction reforms at a time when many educational services face severe cuts.

"If we don't allow for averaging [up to 22 students], then districts will engage in wholesale elimination of class-size reduction programs, which will mean a lot more teachers' jobs lost," said Kevin Gordon, executive director of the California Assn. of School Business Officials.

Many districts are considering such action.

The Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District in Northern California has been talking about raising K-3 class sizes to 30 students.

A private foundation, however, has raised enough money -- $165,000 -- to keep the 20-to-1 ratio in first grade.

And the school board may reconsider what to do about the other grades next week.

"We'd rather avoid this at all costs," said Assistant Supt. Don Gatti. "We would like to keep it smaller."

Officials in the Los Angeles Unified School District said they would welcome any new flexibility.

The larger classes would mean the loss of about 250 teaching positions, but those employees could be absorbed by other schools, officials said. The district hires about 2,000 new teachers each year.

"It's really unlikely that anybody would lose their job," said Joe Zeronian, the district's chief financial officer.

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