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California school districts have embarked on a massive teacher-hiring spree sparked by a nearly $1 billion state initiative to reduce class sizes in the primary grades.

The overheated market for elementary teachers is expected to have wide-ranging consequences for the entire state education system. State universities will be pressured to turn out more teachers. Districts will have to recruit more aggressively. Schools will have to find space to house additional classes. And private schools may feel the pinch if demand drives up public school salaries, making jobs in those schools more attractive.

The hiring binge also raises questions about teacher quality. Some Californians who have long complained about the size of elementary classes--the largest in the nation--now worry that quick hiring could create new problems if untrained teachers are placed in classrooms.

"It's just like a pinball machine, where the ball hits one place and rebounds to another," says Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. "There are a lot of ripple effects throughout the system in ways I don't think were anticipated when everybody said, 'Oh, 20-to-1, that's just great.' "

The new state budget signed this summer by Governor Pete Wilson provides $771 million to cut K-3 class sizes from as many as 30 students to 20. It requires districts to start with the 1st and 2nd grades. Lawmakers set aside another $200 million to create extra classroom space. The program offers an incentive of $650 per student if classes are cut by February 16.

In arguing for smaller class sizes, Wilson, a Republican, cited California students' poor showing on national reading assessments. Experts question, however, whether hiring large numbers of novice teachers is the answer. Some districts, such as San Diego, plan to offer teachers in the upper elementary grades the opportunity to teach 1st and 2nd graders to avoid staffing the key early grades with inexperienced teachers.

"It's hard not to be supportive, but certainly there are issues of quality," says Gary Hart, a former state senator who is director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform.

State officials estimate that reducing K-3 class sizes would require 6,500 teachers per grade--a total of 26,000 new teachers. The state Commission on Teacher Credentialing licensed just 5,000 elementary teachers last year. But some analysts point out that the state has a "reserve pool" of some 200,000 licensed people not now teaching. If salaries do rise, some of these teachers may return to the classroom.

So far, districts with attract-ive pay and working conditions generally are finding enough qualified teachers. But some urban districts have resorted to hiring teachers with emergency credentials who have little or no formal preparation to teach. Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest district, needs to hire 2,200 to 2,600 elementary teachers to reduce class size in just 1st and 2nd grades, says district official Michael Acosta. Another 950 are needed to fill regular vacancies.

The district is recruiting aggressively. By the first week in September, it had signed up 1,500 new elementary teachers, but about half of those were hired with emergency credentials. These people have graduated from college and passed the state's basic-skills test but still have to complete their education coursework.

The state program will not cover the full cost of carrying out the class-size mandate. The San Diego school district, for example, will spend about $7 million from its general fund to bring down the size of 1st and 2nd grade classrooms, but it cannot afford to do more without more money for facilities, says district spokeswoman Norma Trost. The majority of the 270 new teachers needed to reduce class size in 1st and 2nd grades have been hired from the substitute pool, which, Trost says, is now "decimated."

About 95 percent of the 300 new elementary teachers that Fresno has hired are fully credentialed, says associate superintendent Florentino Noriega. Some of those new teachers were hired away from small, lower-paying districts in the surrounding rural areas.

In Oakland, meanwhile, some 2,000 people turned out for a district job fair in August. Administrators hired some teachers on the spot and held an orientation session for people without teaching licenses to explain how to get them. "The job fair was on the 4th floor," says Ken Epstein, a history teacher who helped organize the event, "and the line went down all four flights, out the front door, and around the corner. It was two blocks long."

Vol. 08, Issue 02, Page 11

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