Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bid for flexibility in use of class-size reduction funds criticized

Unions and activists say Schwarzenegger's proposal would mean bigger classes in poor and minority schools. Administrators say adding a few more pupils per class could save the program.
By Seema Mehta
January 31, 2009
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget proposal to allow school districts to use state class-size reduction funding any way they choose is alarming teachers unions and community activists, who say it will inevitably lead to ballooning classrooms in the state's neediest communities.

"What's most offensive is that eliminating class-size reduction won't save the state one dime," said David A. Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Assn., which is launching a television ad blitz this weekend urging Californians to call Schwarzenegger and their legislators to oppose the proposal. "Districts will continue to receive that funding from the state, but won't have to spend that money on class-size reduction, or frankly, even in the classroom."

Activists say the proposal will take the greatest toll on minority and poor districts.

"I can assure you that the districts in poorer neighborhoods will be the first to increase classroom sizes, [which] means the achievement gap will widen," said Alicia Gaddis, board chairwoman of the Sacramento branch of the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now. "That is a tragedy."

The proposal is among many aimed at dealing with California's deep financial crisis. The state is facing a projected deficit of nearly $42 billion by the middle of next year. The 2009-10 budget is far from finalized, and it is unknown whether the class-size reduction proposal will survive negotiations in Sacramento. But education will probably face major cuts, because it makes up about 40% of the state budget.

A Schwarzenegger spokesman called the CTA's claims "misleading."

"If a school district believes class-size reduction is one of the highest priorities, nothing in the governor's proposal will prevent them from being able to carry it on," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

He said the suggestion for greater flexibility in how districts can spend nearly $15.7 billion next year in so-called categorical funds, including $1.3 billion for kindergarten through third grade class-size reduction, came last fall from district superintendents as a way to address the impending state-funding cuts.

"The governor is proposing basically to tear down the fences that restrict how these dollars can be spent in order to give local school districts the greatest flexibility possible to allocate these dollars where they are needed the most," Palmer said.

Class-size reduction, which became law in 1996, pays districts $1,071 yearly per student in kindergarten through third-grade classes with an average of 20 students or fewer per teacher. Several studies have shown that smaller class sizes lead to academic gains.

But several California district officials said that without greater flexibility, class-size reduction, which is subsidized with other district funds, will be on the chopping block as districts make tough decisions.

"Flexibility is always a good thing for a school district because we have a better and more intimate understanding of what our own district needs are," said Leslie Crunelle, assistant superintendent of educational services in the San Gabriel Unified School District.

Alice Petrossian, chief academic officer in the Pasadena Unified School District, said cutting class-size reduction could save the district hundreds of thousands of dollars, but allowing the district to add a couple of students to each class would help keep smaller classes intact.

"The flexibility in class-size reduction is crucial to saving class-size reduction," Petrossian said. "Here's what the option is: If we don't get some level of flexibility to move up to 22 or 23 [students], the next option for districts who are cutting it will be [class sizes of] 30 or 31."

She said school boards that try to summarily eliminate class-size reduction and spend the money on other costs, particularly if they are not in the classroom, will face parental revolt.

The governor's proposal could also ease a move being considered for next year by Los Angeles Unified to increase class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and decrease sizes in fourth- and fifth-grade classes to meet a ratio of 25 students per teacher across those grades.

But other educators, such as state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who wrote the class-size reduction legislation in 1996 while a member of the state Senate, say the governor's proposal will lead to a dismantling of class-size reduction and an increase in the achievement gap.

"It's a sad day for all of California," he said. "This would be a major step backward. We know class-size reduction works. To address the dropout rate, we need more class-size reduction at more grade levels."

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