State class sizes grow as budget cuts take hold

Next week is back to school week for thousands of children and parents across California. But this year, many parents may be in for an unpleasant surprise on their elementary school child’s first day of school. Classes that were essentially capped at 20 students for kindergarten through third grade are growing in size thanks to state budget cuts, and other changes to state law made to help cope with the ongoing fiscal crisis.

During the February budget debate, the state greatly reduced the penalties for schools that do no conform to the smaller class size goals. This new flexibility has led many districts to back away from the popular class-size reduction program, simply because of economics.

“I’m a big believer in class-size reduction. I know it works,” said state Superintendent Jack O’Connell.  “The legislature has created almost a perverse incentive to go to higher class sizes.”

O’Connell said the scaling back of class-size reduction, along with other education cuts like eliminating summer school funding and shortening the academic year, will adversely affect students.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It’s going to be harder for our kids, attending school fewer days, in larger classes. Intuitively, it’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing.” In one Sacramento elementary school, two third grade classes were consolidated.

Instead of two classes, this year parents at Theodore Judah Elementary were told there will be one third grade class with 36 students, unless the school can secure funding to hire another teacher.

The class-size reduction program began under Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. When the state was awash in money, and with the schools’ constitutionally guaranteed funds growing rapidly under the Proposition 98 formulas, Wilson led the charge for smaller class sizes in grades K-3. The program was popular with parents, and allowed Wilson to earmark the schools’ windfall, in an effort to keep the money out of the hands of teachers unions.

The program has never been mandatory, but there have been strong financial incentives for schools to participate. When the program began in 1996, schools received an additional $650 per child enrolled in a class. By 2007, that number had grown to $1,071 per child.
With that, the cost of the program increased statewide. In the last budget year, California spent $1.8 billion to keep children in early grades in smaller classes.

But school districts have long complained that the money from the state did not cover the full cost of implementing the smaller class sizes. Additional teachers were needed to staff the smaller classrooms, and the program put strains on school facilities as well.

The program helped lead a statewide hiring boom for teachers. In 1996, there were 249,000 public school teachers in California. By 2002, that number had grown to nearly 310,000, according to data from the California Department of Education. That boom was led by a number of factors including increasing enrollment, and the implementation of class-size reduction.

But when the state economy began to slow down, the money for schools dried up. Offer sheets for new hires were now being replaced by layoff notices as schools struggled to cope with statewide budget cuts. Schools turned to the Legislature to help, in part, by reducing the penalties for having more than 20 students in a K-3 classroom.

In 2003, SB 556 by Sen. Byron Sher modified the system of financial sanctions against schools that went over the desired goal of 20 students per K-3 classroom. If the average enrollment of a K-3 class was between 20.5 and 21 students, schools lost 15 percent of their per pupil funding. If the average annual enrollment was between 21 and 21.5 students, schools would lose 30 percent, and so on.

Under that Sher proposal, if a class averaged more than 22 students, they would lose all funding under the class size reduction program.

But changes to the law made earlier this year weakened the penalties even more, giving districts less incentive to keep their K-3 classes small. As part of the February budget deal, classes between 20.5 and 21.5 students lose only 5 percent of their per pupil funding. A sliding scale exists up to an enrollment of 25 students. Now, if a class has 25 or more students, that class still only loses 25 percent of its class-size reduction funding.

State numbers crunchers concede the increased flexibility will make it less likely that schools can adhere to smaller class sizes.

Although $1.8 billion has been set aside to pay for the program in the current budget year, one budget source expects “a couple hundred million or so” to go unclaimed.

Districts have been squeezed on the other side as well. As the budget crisis has deepened, state support for smaller classes has been pared back. Funding for the program was cut by $32 million. That meant a small reduction in the per pupil grants given from the state – from $1,071 to $1,069, according to stats from the California Department of Education.

The effects of smaller classes on student achievement has been the subject of some debate. But according to information from the U.S. Department of Education, smaller class sizes do indeed improve student performance.

“Students participating in the SAGE and California class-size reduction programs outperformed their counterparts in larger classrooms on standardized tests,” the DOE’s Web site states. “In both the Tennessee and Wisconsin efforts, these benefits were strongest among African-American students who had larger gains than their white counterparts, again suggesting that reduced class sizes are a highly effective method of closing the “achievement gap” between black and white students.”

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