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Deal aims to reduce class size

In lieu of potentially larger raises, the L.A. teachers union wants funds earmarked to make classes smaller across the board.

February 14, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

This year's protracted negotiations between the teachers union and the Los Angeles Unified School District added a new wrinkle to the traditional back and forth over salary and benefits. The tentative deal, reached Monday night, will make reducing class size an increasing focus of the school system's future reform efforts.

So while teachers will take home 6% in more pay -- with raises in future years postponed for later discussion -- teachers, parents and students will look forward to classes that will shrink in size by two students or more over the next three years.

Both sides characterize the decrease as only a beginning. But to win smaller classes, the union sacrificed money that could have raised the salary offer. The district, for its part, must now identify $213 million in budget cuts over three years to pay for the entire package.

"Class-size reduction is the biggest piece in school reform," A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said at a Tuesday news conference with district officials. He added: It is also "very, very expensive."

Standing next to Duffy, recently hired district Supt. David L. Brewer called the settlement "consistent with my commitment to streamline operations."

But where would money for this pact come from?

"I don't know," Brewer said. "Anybody else want to talk?" He later responded: "I think we will be able to find the money to do what we want to do."

Class sizes already are set at a 20-to-1 ratio for kindergarten through third grades, with most of the cost picked up by the state. California also pays for class-size reduction in 9th- and 11th-grade English. The school district, on its own, already funds some smaller classes for algebra. The new contract decreases class sizes by two students elsewhere. Without the changes, for example, 11th- and 12th-grade high school academic classes would be allowed to average as many as 40.5 students.

Additional reductions will be paid for with new state money intended specifically to benefit students from poor families and students who speak limited English. Those dollars, for example, would pay for seven new teachers at Belmont High School alone.

The state has added other class-size reduction initiatives over the last year -- including one that would set all classes in 500 selected schools at a ratio no higher than 25 to 1. About 80 L.A. Unified schools are expected to receive those dollars.

This policy direction may be overused, said UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller.

"The state is now spending about $2.4 billion a year on class-size reduction, and there may be more effective ways to spend some of that money," Fuller said. The research shows two things, he added -- that the strategy "effectively raises achievement primarily for kids from low-income families," and "to realize that effect, we've got to lower classes to 18 or 20 kids per classroom. Marginal decreases of two or three kids will make no difference and cost the taxpayers millions of more dollars."

As a part of contract talks between unions and school districts, increasing class size has frequently been the mechanism for squeezing out higher pay raises, or, in tough times, avoiding other budget cuts and layoffs.

But in this negotiation, union rhetoric about class size wasn't simply a bargaining chip or a strategy to win public sympathy. District officials, meanwhile, decided that reducing class size was in line with ongoing reform efforts.

The pact is likely to receive unanimous support from the school board, if ratified by union members. Still, on Tuesday, two board members voiced concerns. To the extent that money runs short, said David Tokofsky, he would blame the state for not putting more dollars into education. Mike Lansing, in an interview, said he worried that the package would undercut other reform efforts, such as establishing small schools.

The total package increases district salary costs by $240 million a year, as part of an operating budget of $7.5 billion. The district estimates that another part of the agreement, maintaining current health benefits, will cost an additional $60 million. When phased in, the class-size reduction will run about $135 million a year. Most of the funding will be available from an increase in the money that the state pays school systems per student.

"There is love in the air the day before" Valentine's Day, said school board incumbent Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who attended the news conference at Gratts Elementary, west of downtown. Standing with her were union officials who have pledged at least $250,000 to her reelection campaign and that of Jon Lauritzen, who also was all smiles.

There will be no valentines from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who did not attend and who hopes to use the March election to install board members willing to give him greater say over local schools.

"I've said from the beginning that we have to pay our teachers more," Villaraigosa said Tuesday. "I'm heartened that this offer does that."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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