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Department Unveils Guidance on Class-Size Initiative

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Washington

New guidance from the Department of Education on the federal government's $1.2 billion class-size-reduction initiative appears to offer schools flexibility in implementing the program, but still leaves some questions unanswered, several state and local officials say.

The department also unveiled new estimates this month of how much class-size funding districts can expect to receive for the 1999-2000 school year. The numbers vary widely, depending on poverty levels and enrollment.

The nation's biggest school district, the 1.1 million-student New York City schools, is slated to get the most money--$61 million. But some small, rural districts --such as the 235-student Laneville district in Texas, set to get $12,000--would not receive enough to hire even one full-time teacher and would have to form consortia to qualify. The funding will be made available July 1.

For More Information
"Guidance for Class-Size Reduction Programs" is available on the Department of Education's Web site www.ed.gov/inits/FY99/
March3version.pdf
or by calling 202-260-8228. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

An estimated 30,000 new teachers could be hired in the first year of the program, which aims eventually to add a total of 100,000 teachers in the early grades.

However, the program saw an unexpected turn last Thursday, when Senate Republicans succeeded in amending a so-called Ed-Flex bill to allow current funding for class-size reduction to be used for expenses under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Clinton administration and Senate Democrats failed, despite intensive efforts, to attach a six-year authorization of the class-size plan to the legislation, which grants states and districts freedom from certain federal regulations.

Many state and district officials had anxiously awaited the guidance and funding estimates reLEAsed March 5, which were designed to answer key questions about exactly how the more than $1 billion in federal funding for the current fiscal year will be allocated and how districts can spend the money. The department is sending the guidance and estimates to all states and school districts.

"I must have had 40 calls from superintendents" asking for details about the program, said Joyce Benjamin, the associate superintendent of federal relations in the Oregon Department of Education. Oregon will get $11.6 million under the plan for the coming school year.

Some administrators were pLEAsed with what they heard. "I like the flexibility. I think that makes sense," said David S. Wolk, the superintendent of the 2,862-student Rutland, Vt., public schools.

According to the guidance document, states are required to allocate 100 percent of the federal funding they receive directly to eligible local education agencies, based 80 percent on poverty and 20 percent on school enrollment. Eighty-two percent of the money must be used for recruiting, hiring, and training certified teachers, while up to 15 percent can be used for professional development and teacher testing, and 3 percent can be used for local administration.

Class-Size-Reduction Guidance:
The Department of Education issued guidance this month on the $1.2 billion federal class-size-reduction initiative. The department says that, if schools in a local education agency (LEA) have a class size in grade 1 through 3 (or in other grades or subjects for LEAs that do not serve grade 1 through 3) that is higher than 18 children:
  • The LEA must use a minimum of 82 percent of the funds it receives to recruit, hire (including payment of salaries and benefits), and train certified classroom teachers in order to reduce the class size for those grades.
The LEA may use a maximum of 15 percent of the funds for:
  • The costs of testing new teachers for academic-content knowledge and to meet state certification requirements that are consistent with Title II of the Higher Education Act of 1965; and
  • Providing professional development to teachers, consistent with Title II of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The plan offers some flexibility to meet state and local needs. Although the money is earmarked for reducing class sizes to 18 or fewer pupils in grades 1-3, schools that already meet this requirement may use the aid to reduce sizes in other grades or to improve teacher quality, the department says.

The guidance also says that states and districts may apply for waivers from certain portions of the program. In fact, California, which is in the third year of its own effort to cut K-3 class sizes, has already requested a waiver so that schools with 20 students per class can have greater flexibility.

Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction, told federal officials that 28,000 new teachers have already been hired under the state's class-size-reduction effort, which began in 1996. "I believe further reduction in class size [in grades 1-3] would only exacerbate our teacher and facilities crisis," Ms. Eastin wrote in a Feb. 19 letter to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. Though nothing is official yet, the secretary has indicated that he "wants to try and support" the request, said Julie Green, Mr. Riley's press secretary. California districts are expected to receive an estimated $129 million this year from the federal program.

Funding Concerns

Paula Butterfield, the superintendent of the 5,100-student Bozeman public schools in Montana, said her biggest concern was whether the federal commitment would extend beyond one year.

"When you have one-time-only money, and you're hiring people--that can create real problems," she said. "I know that that's the thought of many superintendents." Ms. Butterfield's district, which is slated to receive $107,000 in fiscal 1999, has six elementary schools; she estimated that the class-size dollars could pay for four new teachers.

John T. MacDonald, the director of the state LEAdership center at the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, said a central issue for states was how the class-size program fits with their existing initiatives. In addition to California, other states with class-size-reduction programs are Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin, among others.

Another question involves what happens with small districts that do not qualify for enough funding to hire one full-time teacher.

"Half the districts in Texas won't be eligible because the allocations would be so small," said B.J. Gibson, the senior director of student-support programs for the Texas Education Agency.

According to the federal guidance, such districts could form consortia to share the resources for class-size reduction. But many educators foresee questions about making such an approach work.

Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary Riley, has acknowledged some problems with the requirement. He said in an interview that the administration is seeking a minor legislative change that would "create some options for small, particularly rural, districts so that they can [better] benefit from [the program]."

The guidance also suggests creative but permissible strategies to lower class sizes in districts facing space constraints. Districts could, for example, pair up teachers in one room to provide team teaching or small-group instruction in mathematics and reading.

Recognizing that some communities may face challenges in implementing the initiative, Mr. Cohen said the department has attempted to be flexible. "We're trying to encourage people to be innovative," he said. "The goal here is to get small classes with qualified teachers."

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