Most of California's largest school districts are increasing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, eroding the most expensive education reform in state history.
California Watch surveyed the 30 largest kindergarten through 12th grade 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 classes 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.
Most districts in Stanislaus County have maintained small classes in the primary grades, but some will consider scaling back for the 2010-11 school year, taking advantage of flexibility in class-size reduction funding the state is giving districts meant to help those undergoing drastic budget cuts.
Modesto City Schools, the county's largest district with nearly 30,000 students enrolled, retained the 20-to-1 ratios this school year.
The expense of smaller class sizes might become an issue in coming years as districts grapple with consecutive years of shrinking budgets. The Modesto district faces $25 million in budget cuts for the next school year.
"Class size reduction identifies that both smaller class sizes and improvements in teacher quality are necessary to achieve the most significant and lasting gains in student achievement and to truly close the achievement gap," Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores said. "I would hope that the state budget picture turns around so that we could continue to offer class-size reduction. The challenge is, can we afford it?"
Sylvan Union School District in north Modesto has increased class sizes by an average of two or three students, despite the program's popularity among parents and teachers. Third-grade teacher Julie Nelson taught 20 students in her Woodrow Wilson Elementary class last school year. That number jumped to 28 this year.
"It's definitely a challenge, given the range of skills and backgrounds my students have," Nelson said.
The state class-size reduction program was adopted 13 years ago with much fanfare. Its goal was to bring the state's crowded K-3 classrooms down to a maximum of 20 students for every teacher. As an incentive to participate, Sacramento gave districts a generous annual subsidy for every child, now $1,071 per child.
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 districts have had to pay to cover the full costs
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The program was rooted in research from other states that showed students in smaller classes 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 with parents and teachers. Yet because of the state's budget crisis, school officials are finding it harder than ever to sustain.
From San Jose to LA
That's the case in Mount Diablo Unified School District, in Contra Costa County, and 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 classes 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.
At Oliveira Elementary School, in a quiet neighborhood in 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."
A flexible incentive
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 Legislature has designated lower class sizes as a top priority for education spending. The program was one of a handful that escaped the budget ax 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 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 still can 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, districts could spend as much as $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 districts to keep classes small, despite reducing the penalties for exceeding the 20-student cap.
But former Gov. Wilson, who initiated class-size reduction when the state enjoyed a budget surplus in 1996, said the changes "totally defeat the purpose of the program. If you get 70 percent of the funds for doing nothing, where is that money going?"
State not so golden
One purpose was to bring California's class sizes down -- to get them in line with those of other states. That did happen in the elementary grades. But by 2007, California had larger student-teacher ratios than every state except Utah and Arizona across all 12 grades.
Larger K-3 classes threaten to push California further behind.
In the meantime, administrators, policy-makers and teachers are debating whether class-size reduction makes a difference in student performance. Dominic Brewer, a USC professor, said there is no compelling research showing that class-size reduction improves academic performance in California. What research does exist has typically been done in other states and in classrooms with even smaller enrollments.
"A class of 20 may be terrible for an ineffective teacher," he said. "And a great teacher can do great things with 30."
But Doug Wheeler, a veteran kindergarten teacher in San Pablo, 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 have 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. "It's 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."
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield contributed to this report.
California Watch is an investigative reporting unit with offices in the Bay Area and Sacramento. It is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.