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A Class-Size Compromise

May 12, 2003

No parent or teacher wants to see small class sizes go away in the primary grades, when schoolchildren are nailing the key skills for educational success. But legislation that would raise the cap to 22 children from 20 per class -- while keeping the average at 20 -- is a sensible compromise to give the youngest students more teacher attention while addressing the state's budget crisis.

The 7-year-old reform has had some unintended effects. Schools scrambled to find space for extra classes, and the teachers to staff them. Many of the new hires lacked credentials. The uneven numbers of children led schools to combine grades, negating much of the benefit of having fewer students. The state's reimbursement didn't cover the cost for most schools, so districts pulled money from other worthy programs.

A Rand Corp. study last year could not determine that the reform had led to higher achievement. But that study's findings have been taken out of context by people who want to end the expensive program. The state began several other important reforms at the same time it shrank class sizes, introducing statewide testing and more effective reading programs. There was no way to separate out the effect of any single reform. The larger importance of the study may have been to take the subject of classroom size off the list of education's sacred cows.

Teachers unions and parent groups are lobbying heavily against the current bills, the most prominent of which is SB 556, sponsored by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford). They point to an April study by the Commonweal Institute of Menlo Park, which warned that such legislation could mean losing 6,000 teachers, undermining California's effort to recruit qualified instructors.

But how many teachers would lose their jobs if cash-strapped districts opted out of the program altogether, raising class sizes to 32 instead of 22? The author of the study concedes he didn't look at that possibility. In addition, schools expect retirements to open up spots for many teachers whose jobs could be threatened.

The state must guard against class sizes creeping back up to their original levels. The Sher bill is limited, restoring the 20-student cap after three years. And it encourages schools to keep qualified teachers by requiring any class of more than 20 students to have a credentialed teacher.

Some districts already are dropping out of the small-class program or restricting it to one or two grades. Without a slightly higher cap, more will follow. California can either act wisely to preserve the essentials of the class-size program or gradually doom it because of an unwillingness to be flexible.

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