Money also matters

California's groundbreaking attempt at reducing class size in public schools may be failing in poorer districts.

Published February 20, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Six years after California began an ambitious program to limit class size to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade, the popular initiative is in jeopardy. One school district has decided to scale back its program and others are expected to soon follow as new budget shortfalls have wiped out money to pay for the hidden costs of the program.

The problems in California serve as an ominous warning for other states that have jumped on the bandwagon of class size reduction. In California, educators say the system is suffering from trying to do too much too quickly, without enough funds to fully implement the program. While more targeted programs in states like Wisconsin and Tennessee are showing positive results, the nation's largest experiment in reducing class sizes is suffering from unintended consequences -- reducing the quality of teachers statewide, and widening the achievement gap between the richest and poorest schools -- which have limited the program's success.

In the mid-1990s, California Gov. Pete Wilson spearheaded the nation's most ambitious class size reduction program -- to ensure that classes in kindergarten through third grade had no more than 20 students. While the program was never mandatory, more than 90 percent of the state's school districts signed up, entitling them to millions more dollars in state funds. Though the new program did not cover all of the costs of implementing the smaller classes, the halcyon days of the mid-to-late '90s in California left schools with enough discretionary money to make up the difference.

"There was never any pretense that the state would fully pay the cost of running the program, but it's becoming more and more expensive," says Lynn Piccoli, manager of the state Department of Education's class size reduction program. "In many, if not most districts, there's a significant encroachment into the district's general fund in order to pay for the cost of the program. That's getting worse. They hired thousands and thousands of new teachers in 1996 when the program first started and now they're going up the salary scale."

But the program proved so popular -- and so expensive -- that districts were forced to take money away from other programs just to keep class size reduction running.

"Districts had to pay for new facilities or construction or new desks, that weren't covered by the state," said Brian Stecher, a senior social scientist at RAND Corp., one of the supervisors of the independent analysis of the state's class size reduction program. "And there were hidden costs because the reimbursement they received from the state for lowering their class size was in many cases less than the cost of hiring a new teacher and setting up a teaching station. So districts reported to us that had to take money from other areas to keep the class size program going."

Details of just how much districts are spending to pay for the class size reduction program are hard to come by; but it's a cost that many say they can no longer afford. The era of soaring budget surpluses is over in California, and public school budgets are also taking a hit. As districts scramble to find ways to save money, some are opting, reluctantly, to eliminate the caps on class size in the early grades.

In Orange County, the 35-school Irvine School District eliminated its class size reduction program for kindergarten, second and third grades, hoping to make a dent in a $5.3 million budget shortfall. (The move is expected to save the district $750,000.) "It feels like we're going backward," district chief financial officer Vern Medeiros told the Chicago Tribune recently.

More districts are on the brink of following suit. "This is the huge problem," says George Bohrnstedt, senior vice president for research at American Institutes for Research, which is overseeing the audit with RAND and other research groups. "After the first year of implementation, 50 percent of the districts said they didn't have the money to fully implement class size reduction. In this year's report, two years later, we found that two-thirds of the districts didn't have the money."

Despite the early advantage of multibillion-dollar state budget surpluses, class size reduction was an under-funded program from the start. Now that much of the surplus money designated for education has dried up, the program's prospects for survival have dimmed. "We began to see some signs that this could be a problem," says Bohrnstedt, "but frankly, we were taken by surprise by what happened in Irvine. These districts have been able to borrow the money from someplace else, but with budget constraints, they're not going to be able to do that nearly as easily as they could the last two, three, four years."

The program also exacerbated the state's teacher shortage, and forced districts to eliminate things like libraries and computer labs -- even playgrounds -- to fill the additional needs for classroom space.

These unintended side effects of class size reduction, say Bohrnstedt and Stecher, make it difficult to assess how effective the program has been in increasing student achievement. Improved academic performance, the standard by which schools are judged these days, would have been the strongest argument for hanging on to the program, despite its burdens on the budget and facilities.

"The quality of teachers overall declined quite a bit as a result of the program. They had to hire a lot of uncredentialed teachers," Stecher said. "That, on the surface, could make a legitimate case that would reduce the effectiveness of the program. Another complicating factor was that class size reduction wasn't the only thing going on during this three-year period. There were a half a dozen other reforms that all had some effect and it's very hard to disentangle them all."

"The story from California is more about the unanticipated effects on the system, the shifting of resources, than it is about achievement per se," says Bohrnstedt. He says other states, like Tennessee and Wisconsin, which phased in class size reduction programs more gradually, provided a truer test of the class size reduction program, and have yielded better results.

While class size reduction remains immensely popular with teachers and parents, researchers have warned for years that it was not a silver bullet for the state's education problems. And, they say, political concerns were put above policy when the state decided to implement the program so quickly.

"We had suggested that in our earlier reports," says Bohrnstedt, "that they ought to reconsider the formula and ask whether one-size-fits-all is the right model."

"One of the issues that continues to come up is that we have fewer fully credentialed teachers in high-poverty areas," says Christine Rodrigues, a consultant for the state Department of Education for the federal class size reduction program. "In those areas, the students generally come to school much less well prepared, much less versed in everything about functioning successfully in school. Then we have huge waves of immigrants -- many more immigrant children than many other states. We have a lot of different issues that may be affecting achievement results. Those are just different layers on top of it."

"In California, schools with the highest percentage of kids who were at risk were the slowest to implement [class size reduction] and when they did, they were much more likely to get a teacher who was on an emergency credential," Bohrnstedt said.

In California, there are still from 30,000 to 40,000 teachers operating on emergency permits -- 15 percent of all public school teachers in the state. But the state's poorest schools are about 17 percent more likely to have a teacher without a permanent credential than the state's more affluent schools.

In effect, California may soon be the mirror image of Wisconsin and Tennessee, with the more affluent schools able to afford to have small classes, while class sizes in poorer schools begin to grow. Researchers say they will make some recommendations for how the state should cope with the new financial, personnel and facilities shortages in their next report. "We're doing some interviews with policy makers in California to see what the next steps are and what would be effective," Bohrnstedt said, "but that work, frankly, is just beginning now."

California is now wrestling with a $5.4 billion budget shortfall that has dried up school districts' discretionary budgets. Many districts are now considering scaling back the class size reduction program in an effort to save money, but Bohrnstedt says the cutbacks in class size reduction are likely to come first in poorer districts. That may aggravate another unintended consequence in the state's class size reduction program: the widening of the achievement gap between affluent and poverty-ridden schools.

But many, like Rodrigues, have ideas on what kinds of changes are needed. "I think that if the money were concentrated in reducing class size with the top-notch teachers in the high poverty areas we'd see a lot of difference," she says. "A mediocre teacher can do just fine in an upper middle class school district because those kids are going to perform in spite of the teacher. With poor children who come to school with all other sorts of issues and lacks of skill, they're not going to succeed with that same teacher. It's just an unfortunate reality."

Many districts are now encouraging the state to look to the federal government for help. Though Congress just passed a far-reaching $26.5 billion education bill, representatives at the state Board of Education say it is unlikely that the federal government will backfill the state shortfalls in order to save class size reduction. The biggest obstacles, they say, may be more bureaucratic than policy-driven.

"I've had many conversations with them about whether they can use federal money to keep this going," said Rodrigues. "I've had word from the federal office, and it doesn't look like they can. The federal programs always have this supplement-supplant part whereby the states can't replace state and local funds with federal funds. The federal funds have to be in addition to what was there before. I've been trying to figure out a way to help districts with this. I don't know whether we're going to be able to succeed or not."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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