May 19, 2013
Despite Subsidies, Class Sizes Rise in California Schools
Posted on Nov 19, 2009
By Louis Freedberg and Hugo Cabrera, California Watch
This article appeared previously on California Watch.
Most of California’s largest school districts are increasing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, eroding the most expensive education reform in the state’s history.
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 at more than two-thirds of the districts surveyed have parents and teachers concerned that the academic performance of millions of children will suffer. California already ranks 48th in the nation in terms of student to teacher ratios.
And new measures are in place that will allow districts statewide to raise class sizes even higher and still receive more than $1 billion in state aid — money that was originally intended to reward schools that kept class sizes low.
Carol Kocivar, California PTA’s 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 don’t get the individual attention they need,” she said.
The state has invested about $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 state’s budget crisis, school officials are finding it harder than ever to sustain.
That’s the case in both the Mount Diablo Unified School District, in Contra Costa County, and the San Jose Unified School District. In Orange County’s 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 California’s 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 Jose’s 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 won’t 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.”
California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell, 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 program’s existence, schools lost the entire subsidy if the average class size hit 21. That has proved to be a powerful incentive for schools to participate. All but about a dozen of the state’s 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 acted earlier this year to make it easier for schools to abandon the program. The move allows school districts to raise K-3 classes to as high as 31 students on average — at least for the next three years. Schools that raise the class size above 25 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 reducing 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.”
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