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Despite State Subsidies, Class Sizes Begin to Rise Again in California Schools

California Watch/New America Media, News report, Louis Freedberg and Hugo Cabrera Posted: Nov 20, 2009

Traduccin al espaol

Vietnamese version: Số Lượng Học Sinh Mỗi Lớp Lại Tăng Tại Cc Trường ở Cali.

Editor's Note: This article is part of a new collaboration between New America Media and California Watch, a new nonprofit journalism project at the Center for Investigative Reporting. California Watch has multimedia material to accompany this article on its website.

California Watch surveyed the 30 largest K-12 school districts in the state and found that many schools are pushing class sizes to 24 in some or all of the early grades. Other districts have raised class sizes to 30 students reverting to levels not seen in more than a decade. The changes in two thirds of districts surveyed have parents and teachers concerned that the academic performance of millions of children will suffer as a result. California already ranks 48th in the nation in terms of student-to-teacher ratios.

And new legislative measures are in place that will allow districts statewide to raise class sizes even higher and still to receive more than $1 billion in state aid money that was originally intended to reward schools that kept class sizes low.

The class-size reduction program was adopted 13 years ago with much fanfare. It brought the states overcrowded K-3 classrooms down to a maximum of 20 students for every teacher in the lower grades. As an incentive to participate, Sacramento gave school districts a generous annual subsidy for every child now $1,071 per child.

Carol Kocivar, California PTAs president-elect, said that adding just four students more than the base level of 20 represents a significant increase.

When you start inching up above 20, kids dont get the individual attention they need, she said.

The state has invested $22 billion in direct subsidies into reducing class size, including $1.8 billion this school year. This is on top of billions more that individual school districts have had to pay to cover the full costs.

The program was rooted in research from other states that showed students in smaller classrooms were more successful academically.

Even though the state never implemented measurements to track the academic impact of class-size reduction, the program has been enormously popular among parents and teachers. Yet because of the states budget crisis, school officials are finding it harder than ever to sustain.

Thats the case in both the Mount Diablo Unified School District, in Contra Costa County, and the San Jose Unified School District. In Orange Countys Capistrano Unified School District, second and third grade classes have grown to an average of 30.5 students. In Los Angeles, which enrolls 10 percent of Californias students, K-3 class sizes are creeping up to 24 in many schools.

In better times it is something that should be protected, but in the times we are in, it is not something we can afford to continue, said Don Iglesias, San Joses schools superintendent, noting that raising class sizes to 30 will save his district $4 million this year alone.

At Oliveira Elementary School, in a quiet residential neighborhood of Fremont, kindergarten teacher Cheryl Accurso is adjusting to a 30-student classroom for the first time in her 11-year career.

My worry is that with 30 kids in the class, I wont be able to reach out and touch, and get to every child in my classroom, she said. When they come in the morning, I make sure I tap them on the shoulder or pat them on the head, and say their names, so that there is at least one time when I know I can get to all the children.

Californias Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack OConnell, who authored the class-size-reduction legislation when he was a state senator, said that it is no accident that elementary school students in recent years have achieved significant academic gains.

That is now in jeopardy because we have so many school districts walking away from class-size reduction, he said.

For most of the programs existence, schools lost the entire subsidy if the average class size reached 21. That has proved to be a powerful incentive for schools to participate. All but a handful of the states 883 eligible districts have done so.

The state Legislature has designated lower class sizes as a top priority for education spending. The program was one of a handful that escaped the budget axe this year.

At the same time, however, lawmakers have made it easier for schools to substantially increase classroom sizes. Schools that raise the class size above 25 -- up to a maximum of 31 students -- can still receive 70 percent of the subsidies they have received in the past. In past years, K-3 classes of 22 or more students would have been denied state funding through the program.

In theory, school districts could spend more than $1.2 billion of the $1.8 billion set aside for the program on classes with 25 or more students.

Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, and her chief adviser on education policy, said lawmakers are hoping the popularity of the program will force school districts to keep class sizes small, despite Sacramentos decision to reduce the penalties for exceeding the 20-student cap. He said the goal was to give school districts more flexibility in how they spend class-size reduction funds, something they have sought for years.

But former Gov. Pete Wilson, who initiated class-size reduction when the state enjoyed a budget surplus in 1996, said the recent changes totally defeat the purpose of the program. If you get 70 percent of the funds for doing nothing, where is that money going? It is not accomplishing the purpose for which the program was devised.

One purpose was to bring Californias class sizes down to get them in line with those of other states. That did happen in the elementary grades. But across all 12 grades, California still has larger student-to-teacher ratios than nearly every other state.

That worries Doug Wheeler, a veteran kindergarten teacher in San Pablo, north of Richmond, who believes that the larger the class, the more difficult it is for teachers to deliver the goods. This year he volunteered to take more students into his bilingual class rather than having some of them be cut from the program. He now has 27 students.

Teaching is not just standing in front of the class and delivering a lesson, he said. Its about working with kids who are in danger of falling far behind. To get really good results, it has to be one on two, or even one on one.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, with offices in the Bay Area and Sacramento.

This story was edited by Editorial Director Mark Katches and copy edited by William Cooley.

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