Calif. Lawmakers Debate Adding Class-Size Leeway

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While hammering away at a measure to shrink school budgets, the California Senate approved a bill late last month to loosen requirements in the state's class-size-reduction program. And for the first time, the state leaders who have been the staunchest supporters of the program seem at least somewhat receptive to such changes.

The Senate measure, passed in a special session on Jan. 30 as an addendum to a budget-reduction bill, would allow up to 22 pupils—up from 20—in K-3 classrooms, as long as school systems maintained a districtwide average of no more than 20 children per class in those grades.

At press time, the legislature was still considering the budget bill, and it was unclear exactly how the class-size provision would turn out. Senators had agreed to change their plan at the request of their counterparts in the Assembly by requiring that class-size averages be calculated at the school level, not the district level.

Legislators appeared close to reaching agreement late last week.

The special session, meanwhile, will no doubt produce significant school spending cutbacks for the remainder of this school year. While Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, had proposed a 3.6 percent across-the-board cut for education and other programs, legislators agreed last week on a plan to delay $1 billion in education spending until July 1. The delay until the next fiscal year would help schools avoid major cuts in the middle of this school year.

Lawmakers were also likely to approve another legislative package containing an additional $1.2 billion in education cuts that had been identified with the input of school officials, taking two swipes toward an overall goal of chopping $2.7 billion in education spending for this school year.

Gov. Davis requested the cuts to manage the state's budget shortfall, which is projected to edge beyond $30 billion over the next 18 months. The state budget for fiscal 2003 is $75 billion.

Supporters of the Senate plan on class-size reduction say the proposal is not part of a budget-trimming strategy. Rather, they say, they want to give districts more flexibility in administering the program so that they don't leave it or lose money already allocated to them under its auspices. Annual funding for smaller class sizes—a cornerstone of state education aid in California—currently totals about $1.6 billion.

Two of the top proponents of smaller classes—Gov. Davis and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell—are for the first time open to tinkering with the program.

Mr. Davis had hoped to keep the class- size-reduction program out of the budget negotiations, given that he strongly believes the optimal class size is under 20, said Ann Bancroft, a spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Kerry A. Mazzoni, the governor's chief adviser on education.

"That said, this is the kind of year where everything has to be viewed in light of everything else," Ms. Bancroft said.

Mr. O'Connell, a former Democratic state senator who sponsored the original class-size legislation during the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, has some concerns over modifying the plan. But he has shown some willingness to compromise, notably on penalties to schools that inadvertently end up with more than 20 children per classroom, said Teri Burns, the director of governmental affairs for the state education department.

Currently, a district must hire an additional teacher if class size in one grade in one school goes over 20, or else the entire district will lose its state class- size-reduction funding for that grade. Administrators have asked many times for more flexibility to better handle additional students in the middle of an academic year.

Supporters of the proposed changes say such flexibility is needed to save the class-size program. Otherwise, they argue, many districts will choose to withdraw and forgo the additional funding. Already in the past year, a few districts have pulled out in one or more grades, citing costs well beyond the state aid. Furthermore, other districts have had to increase class sizes in upper grades to add more K-3 teachers.

Feeling the Brunt

But the California Teachers Association, the state PTA chapter, and groups representing poor and minority students say giving such flexibility would become the first step toward dismantling the program, which has remained popular among parents and teachers since its adoption in 1996.

The 330,000- member CTA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, called on the legislature to consider tax increases that would be earmarked for education.

Cecelia Mansfield, the director of legislation for the state PTA, said it would be unfair to make such a policy change in the middle of the school year without public advice and the usual legislative process.

"This would be chaos," she contended.

Further, the program has been most beneficial to disadvantaged students, Ms. Mansfield said. Some worry that those students would be impacted most because schools serving needy and minority students tend to have the most crowded classrooms.

But school administrators say those supporters are running the risk of destroying a program that schools want, but can't afford. Moreover, they argue, allowing one or two more pupils in a classroom would have little or no effect on learning.

"The fundamental argument that we're making is that, in most cases, no parent is going to see a change in their child's classroom as a result of this," said Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials, one of the groups that have lobbied for the revisions. "The degree to which school districts have no control over this program, makes it that more likely that the districts would dump all class-size reductions."

Vol. 22, Issue 22, Pages 20, 25

Published in Print: February 12, 2003, as Calif. Lawmakers Debate Adding Class-Size Leeway
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Clarification: This story should have stated that districts lose funding for the affected grade level in that program if any K-3 classroom has more than 20 students.

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