As state cuts funding, districts raise class sizes

As state cuts funding, districts raise class sizes

Michele Ellson

State funding uncertainties have pushed school districts across Alameda County to raise class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, reversing more than a decade’s worth of efforts to maintain classes in those grades at 20 students or less.

Of the 10 districts that responded to a reporter’s request for class size information Friday and Monday, two – Berkeley and Emeryville – have maintained K-3 class sizes at 20 students per teacher, while Hayward has raised its class size maximums to 32 students per teacher in grades 1-3 and 33 students per teacher in kindergarten.

District staffers in Albany, Dublin and Pleasanton said their K-3 class sizes are 25 students per teacher, numbers that rise to 28 in Fremont and San Lorenzo and 29 in Newark. The New Haven Unified School district is raising all its K-3 classes to a maximum of 30 students per teacher next year; kindergarten classes had maxed out at 20 students per teacher last year.

“Do we want to go to 28 (students) to one (teacher)? Absolutely not. But we want to make this work,” said Dr. Dennis Byas, superintendent of San Lorenzo’s schools.

Class sizes have become a major bone of contention between school district administrators and Alameda’s teachers union, which has pushed to return K-3 classes from their current maximum of 25 students per teacher to 20. The school board voted to initiate a fact-finding process on class sizes on April 10, after teachers rejected a tentative contract deal put together with the help of a mediator.

If the report issued after the process is completed doesn’t produce a deal on class sizes, the school board could impose the district’s final offer, which would keep K-3 class sizes at 25 students per teacher. If teachers decide they don’t like the class size deal they could strike, though union president Gray Harris said they don’t want to do that.

Teachers have argued that smaller class sizes are better for students, while district officials have said the state could pull the plug on its class size reduction program, making it too costly for the district to continue.

A 2002 study to evaluate the California class size reduction program’s merits was inconclusive, while the bigger class sizes’ impact on test scores in Alameda’s 10 elementary schools was unclear.

District administrators said in a document released last week that returning K-3 class sizes to 20 students per teacher would cost the district an additional $897,023 per year based on current funding, and an additional $5 million a year if the state eliminates funding for its class size reduction program as Governor Jerry Brown has proposed.

The state pays $1,071 per K-3 student to districts that participate in its class size reduction program, though it has pro-rated that amount over the last few years, allowing districts to retain much of their class size reduction money while they raise class sizes in order to cope with state funding reductions.

Alameda has 2,865 students in kindergarten through third grade this year, and it gets about $2 million in state funding for keeping K-3 class sizes at 25 students per teacher, or 70 percent of what it used to get when those classes were 20 students or less. The district uses another $1.56 million in Measure A parcel tax funds – or about 13 percent of the $12.2 million the district collects – to help cover the cost of keeping K-3 classes at 25 students per teacher.

If those classes were reduced to 20 students per teacher, the district would need to hire 29 additional teachers to cover the classes, the district document showed. District officials said returning K-3 classes to 20 students would force them to divert 181 students from their neighborhood schools; more than 130 students were redirected from their neighborhood schools during the 2010-2011 school year, when K-3 class sizes were raised to 25 students, an enrollment presentation given to the school board last September showed, though the presentation didn't say which schools the students were diverted from.

State lawmakers established California’s class size reduction program in 1996 in an effort to improve the reading and math program for younger students, spending $1.8 billion in the 2007-2008 school year, the last year listed on the California Department of Education’s website. The program proved popular with parents and teachers, but a study that sought to determine the program’s impact was inconclusive.

A 1985 study of Tennessee schools found that students in classes of 13 to 17 showed substantial gains over those in classes of 22 to 25, and that the effects were more pronounced for minority students. But researchers who conducted the 2002 study of California’s program found it difficult to determine whether class size reduction played a significant role in students’ rising test scores.

Alameda Unified’s district-wide academic performance index score has risen steadily over the past five years, and scores for low-income students, English language learners and most of the district’s ethnic and racial subgroups rose even as class sizes grew. But some groups' and schools' scores slipped the year class sizes increased.

Test scores for African American and Latino students and low-income students at three of the district’s Title I elementary schools – schools where 40 percent or more of students are considered low-income – dropped the year K-3 class sizes rose, as did the schools’ overall test scores, data from the California Department of Education’s website showed. But the same scores both rose and fell during years smaller class sizes were in place, the data showed, while test scores at a fourth Title I school – Henry Haight Elementary – rose across nearly every category even as class sizes increased.

Fremont Unified raised K-3 class sizes to 30 students per teacher for one year, a district office staffer there said, before lowering them to 28. And Donna Becnel, an assistant superintendent for Hayward Unified, said district administrators there strive to keep K-3 class sizes at 30 students per teacher.

San Lorenzo’s Byas said raising class sizes there helped the district avoid issuing pink slips and instituting furlough days. He said he is reluctant to ask struggling property owners for a parcel tax to increase school funding since they have approved two bond measures over the past six years.

Byas suggested a reporter look at test score data in the wake of increasing class sizes, though he said that rising test scores could mask other impacts created by bigger classes.

Still, he said he doesn’t know what kind of state funding he can expect to see.

“I don’t trust the state’s numbers,” Byas said.

Comments

Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Mon, Apr 23, 2012

Rather than call class size a "bone of contention" between teachers and the administration, I would call it a bone that we're all gnawing on. Over the years both teachers and administrators have agreed that smaller class size is best for students. At the moment we have to make tough financial decisions and it may be that we sacrifice programs and policies that are best for students because we can no longer afford them.

Schools are accustomed to getting by on a shoelace. What teachers and administrators are doing now is attempting to measure and project how far we can stretch our shoelace.

Submitted by rhausman on Mon, Apr 23, 2012

Interesting that Alameda receives about $2 million in state funding for keeping K-3 class sizes at 25 students per teacher, or 70 percent of what it used to get when those classes were 20 students or less. Does that mean if it returned to the <20 class size, they'd receive the full 100%? If so, the increase would pay for all but less than 5% of the $897,023 the district says it would cost them to go to <20.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Apr 23, 2012

@r: Yes, the district would get the full 100 percent the state pays for CSR if it returned K-3 class sizes to 20 students per teacher. But that amount doesn't pay the full cost of the teachers they say they would need to hire in order to bring the class sizes down (hence the 897k estimate).

Submitted by andycurrid on Mon, Apr 23, 2012