For the first time since the program began 14 years ago, a California governor is planning on spending significantly less on California’s popular, but expensive, class-size reduction program than in previous years.
In his budget released last Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is projecting spending $340 million less than anticipated during the current school year, and $550 million less in the school year beginning in September. Together, the reductions would save the state nearly $900 million.
This would mark a huge rollback of the program which now costs the state about $1.8 billion a year. Since 1996, California has spent more than $22 billion on the program, making it the most expensive education reform program in California history.
Schwarzenegger administration officlals say they are just responding to decisions made by local districts which have already increased K-3 class sizes this year, or plan to next year, and therefore qualify for a reduced subsidy from the state.
The program, initiated in 1996 by former Gov. Pete Wilson at a time when the state enjoyed a budget surplus, was intended to reduce enrollments to 20 in virtually all of the state’s kindergarten through third grade classrooms, based on the belief that students do better academically in smaller classrooms.
But a survey by California Watch last fall found that two thirds of the state’s largest school districts have already raised class sizes, some by a handful of students, and others to as many as 30 students. To yield projected savings of $550 million next year, the Department of Finance is anticipating that the majority of the state's school districts will raise class size during the coming year to at least 25 students.
Since 1996, the state has provided subsidies to schools for every child in a kindergarten through third-grade class with 20 students or less. By this year, the subsidy had risen to $1,071 for every child – and lesser amounts if class sizes rose slightly above the 20-student limit.
Last year, Sacramento made it easier for districts to raise class size and still get most of the subsidy. Schools can now raise class size to 25 or more and still get a portion of the subsidy they would normally have received.
Parent advocates are upset that Schwarzenegger is not fighting to save the program.
“We urge the governor and the Legislature to address the class-size issue with the same urgency they addressed the application for Race to the Top stimulus funds,” said Carol Kocivar, the president-elect of the California State Parent Teachers Association. “Smaller class sizes weren’t designed to save money, they were designed to save children.”
Delaine Eastin, the former superintendent of public instruction who implemented the program and oversaw it between 1996 and 2002, was also harshly critical of Schwarzenegger’s spending proposal.
"Actions speak louder than words,” she said. “He talks a good game, but he has utterly failed to put his money where his mouth is and California's children are paying the price.”
H.D. Palmer, a spokesperson for the California Department of Finance, said the proposed reductions don’t represent an actual budget cut, in that local school districts can continue to participate in the class-size reduction program. But it would be up to local districts to come up with the funds to make up the difference between the state subsidy and the full costs of the program.
“As with any estimate, we will revisit this in the May revision (of the budget) when we have more updated information at our disposal,” he said.
There is some dispute as to how the Schwarzenegger administration came up with its projected savings, both for this year and next. Officials in the Department of Finance told California Watch that they reached their estimates based on information from the state Department of Education. But Carol Bingham, the Department of Education's director of finance policy, said her department won't have a full picture of what school districts are currently doing about class sizes until May or June of this year, and have no projections for what they will do next year.
"We don't yet know how much districts are going to claim," she said.