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95% of Calif. Districts Get Aid To Cut Class Size

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Ninety-five percent of California's 895 school districts qualify for the state's class-size-reduction program, officials announced last week.

Delaine Eastin, the superintendent of public instruction, reported that 851 districts applied for money to cut the number of students in the early elementary grades to 20, from as many as 30. Many of the 44 districts that did not apply are small, rural systems that don't have jam-packed classrooms.

"What was once considered an impossibility is now a wonderful reality," Ms. Eastin said.

The state legislature last summer appropriated nearly $1 billion for new teachers, supplies, and classroom space to bring down the nation's highest class sizes. The infusion of money into education is the largest in California since 1978, when voters approved the Proposition 13 tax-limitation measure that has put a squeeze on schools.

Districts have been working to meet the staffing and facilities requirements of smaller K-3 classes. ("Calif. Scurries To Find Space for Students," Oct. 9, 1996.)

Of the $771 million available for teachers, furniture, instructional materials, and supplies, California districts applied for about $630 million, the state education department said.

Ms. Eastin, noting that there may be adjustments to that amount, is requesting that the remaining money be transferred to meet schools' facilities needs.

The class-size-reduction program included an additional $200 million for facilities, an amount that falls short of the $351 million requested in October by districts.

Ms. Eastin called for more facilities money, including a $3 billion bond measure. Earlier this fall, state legislators refused to put one on the November ballot.

To help meet the need, state officials have approved transferring $95 million from a pot of money designated for school repairs.

Naysayers Disputed

Although they have until mid-February to pare class size, many districts scrambled to hire more teachers and start the school year with more manageable classes. They are required to start with 1st and 2nd grade--the key grades for learning to read.

In the Long Beach Unified district, 15,779 students are attending class with only 19 other children. The district is still reducing class sizes, spokesman Richard Van Der Laan said.

The district called principals and primary-grade teachers back early from summer vacation to get a jump on the smaller classes.

"We've seen much excitement from the teachers," he said. "They're all taking a new look at not only the numbers they are teaching, but the way they're teaching."

Statewide, 52 percent of the children in grades K-3 are attending classes of 20 students, the state education department reported. More than 90 percent of 1st graders, 74 percent of 2nd graders, 23 percent of 3rd graders, and 16 percent of kindergartners are expected to be in the smaller classes by February.

While parents and educators are enthusiastic, some urban districts have had to hire teachers who aren't fully qualified.

To gauge the effects of the program, the education department is surveying a sample of 200 districts this month. The results will be available in the spring.

Gov. Pete Wilson said in a statement that the progress goes against the naysayers who argued that reducing class size couldn't be accomplished. The smaller classes, the Republican governor said, "give teachers a chance to give each student the individual attention necessary for them to learn the gateway skills of reading and math--a laudable goal indeed."

Ms. Eastin wants to go further. She has requested that Mr. Wilson expand the program to include all students in grades K-3 at every school in the state. She also wants the state to pay the actual $800 per-pupil cost of reducing class size, rather than the $650 districts now receive.

The governor is expected to present his budget next month.

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