Class sizes rising again in California schools

1996 was an exciting year for California educators. The Legislature adopted the class-size reduction program, setting a limit of 20 students per teacher in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Over the years, the state has invested a lot of money to reduce class sizes -- about $22-billion. But, times have changed.

"What we see now, more or less, is an unraveling of this program," explained California Watch reporter Louis Freedburg.

The reporters at California Watch surveyed California's 30 largest school districts and found that most of them are increasing class sizes. In the past, districts would have lost the $1,071 per student incentive if they exceeded the class-size limit. But in July, after slashing education funding, lawmakers loosened the restrictions.

"Now, what the Legislature has done is on a scaled level, of descending amount, they said you can go over the 20:1 and you won't get the full funding per student, but it will be on a sliding scale," said Jack O'Connell, California superintendent of public instruction.

So schools can continue receiving class-size reduction money, even with larger classes.

"You now have this ironic situation that money that was intended for small classrooms is now going to classrooms that have as many as 30 students," said Freedburg.

"But in math today, we're going to be talking about things that are impossible," said Cheryl Accurso to her class at Fremont's Oliveira Elementary School.

Accurso has had to adjust to teaching 30 kindergarteners at Oliveira Elementary. She misses the smaller class size.

"When I had 20 kids in my class, I never had to worry about whether I was touching every child that day and helping them and pushing them where they needed to go," she said.

"We've really been hit with a series of body blows around dealing with budget issues," said Sheila Jordan, Alameda County superintendent of schools.

Jordan says both Fremont and Hayward have moved to 30-student classes. A majority of her districts now have 24 students per teacher, and Jordan believes it's going to get worse next year.

"Most districts have some reserve that they're using and there's even some flexibility having smaller reserves and we've gotten stimulus money," said Jordan. "Next year, that's not going to exist and we're very worried."

"We know it works, we know it makes a difference," said O'Connell.

O'Connell says he is pained by what has happened. He authored the class-size reduction law when he was in the state Legislature.

"I hope we can restore the full funding, hold our school districts accountable," he said. "The 20:1 has worked for the decade that we had it and the real solution must be to provide a more stable, predictable funding source for public education."

In the meantime, teachers such as Accurso will have to work harder, to make sure they reach every student.

"When you get the, 'Um, Mom can you help me? I mean, Mrs. Accurso,' that is like the ultimate," she said. "I know I've reached that child and they consider me part of their family."

For more information on the California Watch report, including video and interactive maps, click here.

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