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SIZE MATTERS

Room for improvement

The state gives money to local schools to make classes smaller, but the funds could be better spent.

March 31, 2007

SANTA ANA SCHOOLS deserve a public spanking if, as alleged, they created phantom classes to pull the wool over state officials' eyes. The idea was to make it look as though there were no more than 20 students per teacher in the primary grades so the schools could receive the full $16 million they were entitled to from the state for reducing class size.

As lowdown as such a trick would be, it sheds light on one of the more rigid and expensive regulations governing public education in California. The decade-old class-size reduction program was a poorly planned experiment that is no longer useful. It ought to end, with the state giving the money to local districts to spend in whatever ways will best benefit their students.

California launched its ambitious program for primary grades back when the tech bubble was nourishing state coffers. Costing close to $1.7 billion a year, the program capped kindergarten through third-grade classes at 20 students. For better or worse, education in the state hasn't been the same since.

The reform was begun in an era when many educators believed that if they could get students off to a good start, the rest of the academic years would take care of themselves. The theory has merit, but reality has proved more complicated.

Suddenly, schools needed extra classrooms, so portables took over athletic fields. The program created a huge demand for teachers, triggering an immediate shortage. Schools hired almost anyone who could procure an emergency teaching credential. With so many jobs opening up at better-equipped, affluent schools, many qualified teachers moved to the suburbs.

Beyond that, the rules were rigid. Classes could not go above 20 students, so academically dubious mixed-grade classes began to take care of any overflow. (If there were 18 students in a first-grade class and 22 in a second-grade class, a quick "transfer" could put the ratio back into compliance.) Meanwhile, state funding covered less and less of the cost, and school districts made up the difference by increasing class sizes for older students. The rules have become more flexible, but not enough to meet everyday realities.

There is still no evidence that the multibillion-dollar investment in small primary classes has made more than an incremental difference in achievement. Well-intentioned and popular as it has been, the class-size reduction program represents another restriction on schools that need to be more creative, not less. When state officials bemoan the lack of innovation on the local level, while also requiring public schools to comply with a state Education Code that is measured in feet, not inches, it rings a little hollow.

Instead of dictating how every dollar is spent, the state should allow school districts to use the money from this program as they see fit -- and then the state should hold them accountable for their students' achievement. If the districts fail to spend the money wisely, they would face sanctions from the state, possible takeover and a drubbing of the local school board at the next election.

The state's necessary and rightful role in education is to set standards, shape the curriculum, monitor progress and hold schools responsible for performance. If state officials spent less time monitoring the minutiae of the Education Code and more time ensuring that the schools prepare students well, California would be better off.

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