When school started this year, young children in Fontana crowded into classrooms with as many as 30 students, providing another potent signal that a popular and expensive education reform in California has unraveled.
“It was very tough, but we just don't have the money to sustain the program,” said Alejandro Alvarez, director of certificated human resources for Fontana Unified, which had to lay off 70 teachers this year.
Fontana is not alone in ending the vaunted class-size reduction program, designed 14 years ago to raise test scores with a seemingly winning formula: quieter, more intimate classes of 20 students in kindergarten through third grade.
A new survey by California Watch shows all of the state's largest 30 districts will have classes above 20 students in some or all of K-3 grades this year. Four districts have retained an option to reduce the number of students in kindergarten classes for part of the school day by assigning an extra teacher during core instructional periods.
But these districts are not typical. As a result of budget cuts, schools such as Moreno Valley, Chino Valley and Orange unified school districts in Southern California and San Jose and Stockton unified school districts in Northern California will have 30 students in their K-3 classrooms this fall.
California has spent more than $23 billion from the state’s general fund on the program since 1996, making it the most expensive education reform in state history. Now that celebrated program, along with a host of others enacted when the state’s economy was booming, are crumbling amid a desperate budget crisis.
Even though California succeeded in cutting the size of its elementary classes, its K-12 public schools have a higher ratio of students to credentialed teachers than every other state but Utah and Arizona. Now, larger K-3 classes are pushing the Golden State even further behind the rest of the nation.
"School districts are being forced to make untenable decisions," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. “By walking away from a good program, it is obvious that the state is not making good decisions.”
The pace has accelerated since last fall, when school districts began to retreat from the program, as a 2009 survey by California Watch found. In all, nine districts will have 30 or more students in all or some of their K-3 grades, compared to five last year.
Half of the 30 districts will enroll 28 or more students in some or all of their K-3 classes – a sharp reversal from last year, when two-thirds of districts were able to maintain class sizes of 24 or fewer students.
Now, two-thirds of the state’s largest 30 districts have increased their class size over last year’s levels, although some have been able to keep K-3 classes relatively small. Oakland and San Juan Unified in Sacramento have nudged them up to 23 students. San Francisco has been able to keep class sizes near their original levels, with 22 in kindergarten and first grade, 21 in second grade, and 20 in third grade.
Educators worry about the impact larger class sizes will have on students – at the very time there are efforts across the state to raise test scores, and to evaluate teachers based on student test scores.
"You have more children to work with, so it divides the teacher's time into more pieces," said Catherine Pennington, assistant superintendent for elementary education at Lodi, where K-3 classes are currently larger than in any of the state’s biggest districts.
As a result of an agreement with its teacher’s union this month, the Lodi district in October will reduce maximum class sizes to 28 students, down from the current level of 33 in kindergarten and 32 in first through third grades.
One positive outcome of larger class sizes, Pennington said, is that more parents are volunteering in the classroom and teachers are being forced to adapt their teaching styles.
"A change like this is very challenging," Pennington said. "This takes a different skills set, and a different way to manage the classroom environment."
The state’s class-size reduction program began fourteen years ago. With the help of a rare state budget surplus, the program was rolled out over a matter of weeks in time for opening of the school year. That required a frenzied effort to find extra classroom space and to hire massive numbers of new teachers.
Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin recalls convening meetings with the California Manufactured Housing Institute, and “begging them to double and triple shifts to build portable classrooms.” To get the portables to schools throughout the state, she had to request a waiver from the California Highway Patrol.
“We had the opportunity to do something big and important,” said Eastin.
The program has been so popular with parents and teachers that 99 percent of school districts have participated in what is still a voluntary program. As an incentive, school districts have received a generous subsidy for every child enrolled in smaller classes. Last year, the subsidy had reached $1,071 per child. Yet state funds only cover a portion of the costs, and districts have had to match the state subsidy with additional dollars.
At Fontana Unified's Tokay Elementary School, cafeteria worker Linda Wubker's daughter, now 19, attended the school at the time class sizes were first being rolled back to 20. Now her 6-year-old granddaughter is in first grade at the same school – in a class with 33 students.
"It's not our district's fault that the state doesn't have the money for the program," she said. "But I don't feel the students are getting the learning they deserve, because it is just too many kids for a teacher to handle."
Educators point out that K-3 class sizes are going up as classes are getting even larger in higher grades in many districts. In San Diego Unified, for example, schools have been able to maintain K-3 class sizes at last year's level of 24 students, but fourth- through sixth-grade classes have soared to 36 students in some classes.
Veteran fifth-grade teacher Bill Freeman, who this year became president of the San Diego Education Association, representing the district's nearly 7,000 teachers, said 24-student classes are still manageable, but teaching 36 students is far more difficult.
"It is a huge challenge," he said. "Teachers just can't get to all their students on a daily basis."