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Calif. Budget Allows for Smaller Classes

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California classrooms are among the most crowded in the country. But $771 million in new state funding could begin changing that cramped situation next year.

The state's $62.8 billion budget for fiscal 1997 holds unusually encouraging news for California educators--tidings that Gov. Pete Wilson was quick to emphasize when he signed the budget last month during a ceremony at Columbus Elementary School in Glendale. The $26.8 billion in K-12 spending is $3 billion more than last year.

"Above all, this budget addresses the urgent need to reform California's schools," the Republican governor said. "A good education means a good future for every Californian."

The permanent funding for class-size reduction will be used as an incentive to get schools to lower to 20 the number of students in K-3 classes, though schools must begin with the 1st and 2nd grades.

The $771 million will be distributed as $650-per-pupil grants to schools that meet the 20-1 ratio. The state will spend $200 million on expanding school facilities. Schools will also get one-time, $25,000 grants that could be used to reduce crowding. And another $160 million will be given out for early reading intervention.

While Mr. Wilson and other politicians were taking credit for the infusion of school funds, education officials pointed out that the increase was mandated by statute.

"The law requires them to restore the money, but they all want to take credit for it," said Jim Wilson, the fiscal-policy director for the state department of education. "But to their credit, I'm not going to say that anyone was kicking and screaming to resist it."

Finally, Relief

For Barbara Mikolasko, the vice principal at Columbus Elementary, what matters most is that her school will finally get relief from overcrowding.

Over eight years, the suburban Los Angeles school has grown from 500 students in grades K-6 to more than 1,200. Individual classes range from 28 to 33 students.

"Our teachers are looking forward to a reduction in class size," Ms. Mikolasko said. "We feel that [overcrowding] has contributed to some of our failures statewide."

The Glendale school district, which includes Columbus Elementary, has already appointed a committee to explore options for lowering class sizes. Schools will then decide how best to meet the new goals at their sites.

Some of the questions raised include allocation of teachers and class space, Ms. Mikolasko said. To qualify for part of the $771 million, schools must reach the 20-1 ratio by Feb. 15.

Teachers Needed

Despite progress in Glendale, some unresolved issues linger in Sacramento, the state capital.

Delaine Eastin, the state schools chief, is urging lawmakers to put a school-bond question on the November ballot. Her proposal would leverage $1 billion for class-size reduction, in part to pay for new facilities.

In addition, the education department must still come up with a formula for distributing the $200 million for facilities in the fiscal 1997 budget.

And because the class-reduction plan will create a need for new teachers, state education officials are also asking leaders from public and private colleges and teacher groups to help address the state's teacher shortage.

Options include using existing law to attract new teachers through intern programs, and easing the path for midcareer entries into teaching.

It could take up to 19,500 new teachers to accommodate the reduced K-3 class sizes, according to some early estimates. The governor also signed a bill that would relax certification requirements to help fill that need.

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