New funding formula revives push for smaller class sizes

Just weeks into the school year, some districts are struggling with a provision in California’s dramatic revision of its school financing system that calls for smaller class sizes in grades K-3.

First grade teacher jenny Aguirre crouches next to a student in the front row of her 24-student class at Robinson Elementary School in Fresno. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

First grade teacher Jenny Aguirre crouches next to a student in the front row of her 24-student class at Robinson Elementary School in Fresno. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

The new funding formula, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in July, gives school districts additional funds if they can keep the average class size for kindergarten though 3rd grade to 24 at all of their schools, or work toward achieving that goal. At full funding under the new formula in 2021, districts that meet the target will receive $712, on top of the K-3 per-student base rate of $6,845. (These figures do not account for cost-of-living increases that will be factored annually into the new formula.)

Because full funding isn’t expected to occur for eight years, districts will receive only a portion of the new funding under the class size reduction program this year. Districts will have eight years to get their class sizes in K-3 down to an average of 24. As long as districts with large K-3 classes show steady, annual progress toward the goal they can receive their portion of the bonus funding.

But under the tight prescriptions in the new law, if average class size is above 24 in even one school, the district will lose all of its class-size funding.

“It’s difficult,” said Fremont Unified School District Superintendent Jim Morris. “In our community, it’s caused a few challenges.”

It took a three-day meeting at the district’s main office to figure out how to shift students between schools to meet the reduction target at each school, Morris said. In addition to moving students around, Fremont hired new teachers and opened new classrooms to accommodate newly created classes at some schools.

Districts do have a way out of the pressure to reduce class size to 24 students: If they can negotiate a higher allowable class size with their local teachers unions, they can have higher average class sizes and still receive the additional funding.

The governor touted his new funding formula as a simpler, more equitable method of calculating school funding, but some education policy veterans contend that the challenges in implementing the class-size reduction effort show that the new system is just as complex. “The LCFF is neither simpler nor more transparent than the system it replaced, especially during the phase-in period,” said Rick Pratt, chief consultant for the Assembly Committee on Education.

A contract allowing for 1st through 3rd grade classes to be as high as 27 already exists between Riverside Unified and its local union, said Deputy Superintendent Michael Fine. He said he’s feeling less pressure because of the existing contract, but still sees lowering class sizes as the right thing to do.

“No matter what the research says about smaller class sizes, everybody believes that smaller class sizes are better,” Fine said.

The research

Even as schools work to meet the new state target, it’s unclear what impact – if any – smaller class sizes have on student achievement and whether a class size of 24 is small enough to make a difference.

Nevertheless, small class sizes in the elementary grades have remained popular with teachers, parents and district leaders since the state’s original class size reduction program was launched in the fall of 1996. That program rewarded districts for keeping class sizes in grades K-3 to 20 students or fewer, based on the theory that students who received more individualized attention during the early years of their education would be better prepared to succeed in later grades.

During the state’s budget crisis, the Legislature allowed school districts to raise K-3 class sizes and still receive as much as 70 percent of the class-size subsidy, which averaged more than $1,000 per child. In response, many districts in the state laid off teachers to trim their budgets, and moved away from the 20-student enrollment in K-3 classes.

An EdSource survey last year of the state’s 30 largest districts found that many had not been able to maintain the 20-student cap. Twelve districts in the EdSource survey reported having an average class size of 30 or more students in their K-3 grades, and another three reported having 28 or more. The state’s two largest districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, were able to keep K-3 class sizes to 24 students or fewer, the survey found, but only one district — Stockton Unified — reported having a class size of 20 students, and that was only in kindergarten.

It’s unclear what the current average K-3 class size is statewide, because the California Department of Education does not collect class size data by grade level. But a 2012 survey by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, based on data from about half of the school districts in the state, found that the average K-3 class size in California was 26.

While smaller class sizes remain politically popular, research on the previous 20-student limit in California has been inconclusive about its impacts on student achievement. (See sidebar.)

California’s original K-3 class size reduction program was inspired in part by a comprehensive study on class size, begun in 1985, called the Tennessee STAR study. The study found that students placed in K-3 classes as small as 13 to 17 students performed better than their peers in classes of between 22 and 25 students, about the number the new Local Control Funding Formula program is shooting for.

Under the current budget, it is not fiscally feasible for most California districts to consider class sizes as low as 13 to 17.

Teachers say it works

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, said he had no doubt that smaller classes allowed teachers to be more effective. Making smaller classes a reality in schools is mostly a matter of money, he said.

“If we were really funding appropriately,” Vogel said, “we could get to a 1-to-20 (teacher-to-student ratio) everywhere.”

Vogel pointed to Massachusetts to illustrate his point that it is possible for public schools to serve children in smaller classes than California schools are able to offer. The average class size across all grades in Massachusetts is just under 19. Vogel said that could be a contributing factor in the New England state’s consistently strong performance on national standardized tests.

Third grade teacher Margaret Marcoccio has taught elementary school for 20 years and she’s seen class sizes rise and fall. As an experienced teacher, Marcoccio said she had no trouble handling a classroom of 30 fourth graders at a Novato school in 2000. Nonetheless, she prefers smaller classes and thinks they are better for students.

“(Smaller classes) allow for a more immediate opportunity to build a classroom community, to build structures and foundations of trust and safety,” Marcoccio said.

She said her current third grade class of 21 students at Grattan Elementary in San Francisco allows her to get to know each student individually and better address their needs.

Paying for it

San Francisco Unified, where Marcoccio teaches, was one of the few large districts in the state that was able to maintain smaller class sizes, thanks in part to a 2008 parcel tax that generates enough funds to keep K-3 class sizes at an average of 22 students.

Credit: Figure 2 in "An Overview of the Local Control Funding Formula" by the Legislative Analysts Office

Credit: Figure 2 in “An Overview of the Local Control Funding Formula” by the Legislative Analyst’s Office

Even so, the small classes haven’t come without a cost, said Superintendent Richard Carranza.

“We all but eliminated professional development, curriculum and instructional support” to afford lower class sizes during the recession, Carranza said, “because this is a really important value of the community.”

Districts like Fresno Unified, operating without any extra funding, have had to weigh the ideal of small class sizes against the reality of their budgets. Given their monetary limitations, Fresno’s school board has decided that improving teacher quality will do more to help boost student achievement than small class sizes, said Deputy Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Quinto.

“As a majority, the board has taken the position that unless we can make class sizes as small as 16 or 17 to 1 (student-teacher ratio), the class size reduction of the past has proven ineffective,” Quinto said.

Class sizes in Fresno averaged 26 in kindergarten and 1st grade last year and 30 in 2nd and 3rd grade. Quinto said the district will comply with the new class-size regulations under the funding formula to show support for the new law.

The money provided to districts to reduce class sizes should be enough, said California Department of Finance budget analyst Chris Ferguson. He said the department had picked the 24-student average class size as a goal based on the available funding.

“We looked at where we are and where the available funding would get us to,” he said.

Riverside’s Fine is worried it won’t be enough. Leaders in Riverside Unified have a little breathing room because of the existing union contract, he said. Still, the district is already at work on a plan to lower class sizes from the 30-student average they had in 1st through 3rd grade last year. They’re using new revenue generated by Proposition 30, the voter-approved initiative that raised taxes on the wealthy to help fund education, to hire additional teachers and lower class sizes.

That money won’t be adequate to bring class sizes down to 24 though, Fine said. And he doesn’t think the class-size bonus from the new formula will be enough to cover the gap either.

“LCFF didn’t deal with the adequacy (of the funding) issue at all,” Fine said. “It just redistributed the money.”

Filed under: Data, Early Learning, K-3 Grades, Local Control Funding Formula, Policy & Finance, Reforms, State Education Policy

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21 Responses to “New funding formula revives push for smaller class sizes”

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  1. Lillian Mongeau on Jan 6, 2014 at 10:37 am01/6/2014 10:37 am

    • 000

    Santa Clara USD parent,

    The class size reduction funding is wrapped into the new LCFF funding. If your district’s funding isn’t changing because SCUSD is basic aid, then I think you’re right, you won’t be getting this funding either.

    May I ask what class sizes you are seeing in the early grades in your district?


  2. Santa Clara USD parent on Jan 3, 2014 at 8:44 pm01/3/2014 8:44 pm

    • 000

    What, exactly, does this mean to a “basic funded” district? It is my understanding that those districts are NOT getting any extra monies to reduce class size.

    Would you please clarify?


  3. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Oct 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm10/14/2013 3:56 pm

    • 000

    Any “reform” to lower class size to 24 students in grades K-3 that will not be fully funded until 2021 — and does not take into account teacher cost-of-living increases — is a crying shame and a sham.


    • Lillian Mongeau on Oct 14, 2013 at 4:12 pm10/14/2013 4:12 pm

      • 000

      Hi Frances,

      Apologies if this wasn’t clear in my article: The new formula WILL take into account cost of living increases.

      The numbers in the story do not take those increases into account because officials don’t know what those increases will be yet. The law calls for the amounts cited in the article as targets that must be hit – the question is just how long it will take to get there and how much the targets will change when cost of living is calculated as well.


      • Paul on Oct 14, 2013 at 9:30 pm10/14/2013 9:30 pm

        • 000

        Clearly explained, Lilian, and this also explains the choice of numbers in my three classes of 32 to four classes of 24 scenario. Both the expenses and the revenue will scale.

      • el on Oct 15, 2013 at 9:37 am10/15/2013 9:37 am

        • 000

        The way that the cost of living increases butt up against the phase-in and the hold harmless numbers makes this pretty messy. From what I’ve seen, it’s not entirely clear that all districts will get a true cost of living increase.

        • Paul on Oct 15, 2013 at 9:28 pm10/15/2013 9:28 pm

          • 000

          Agreed. All bets are off during the phase-in period, but once school districts are receiving the full amount, and any COLAs, they’ll be in good shape vis-a-vis reducing K-3 class size to 24. Hold-harmless districts will have to make choices about how to use their local revenues, but those districts are hold-harmless precisely because they have high property tax revenues (or high revenue limits, for historic reasons). They are fundamentally better off than other districts.

          • navigio on Oct 16, 2013 at 7:43 am10/16/2013 7:43 am

            • 000

            I dont remember any discussion about a ‘makeup’ factor for lcff like exists for prop 98 now, though perhaps I missed it. Is there anything that would force the legislature to later cover shortfalls they create by not funding the formula?

          • el on Oct 16, 2013 at 1:11 pm10/16/2013 1:11 pm

            • 000

            One of the differences that was mentioned to me about LCFF is that it is going to make funding much more closely tracked to actual attendance for the year that you’re in. IE, some of the safe harbor mechanisms that protected schools with unexpected declines in enrollment are going to go away, and thus districts are going to have to consider larger cushions of cash and reserves for that contingency, given that they are budgeting a year ahead of knowing actual enrollment. This will be especially acute for smaller districts. School Services is advising a great deal of financial caution. In some situations, that will make it essential to hit a very accurate class size target of not too small and not too large if you also have the value that you don’t want to disrupt the kids every time a couple of families move in or out of your district.

  4. Educator on Oct 14, 2013 at 12:21 pm10/14/2013 12:21 pm

    • 000

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t most of the studies on CSR looking at scores on standardized multiple choice tests? What affect does having smaller classes have on the non-quantifiable factors that are required in classrooms? I don’t think there’s a study on that because it’s hard to study. But let’s just think about it – what kind of culture can a teacher set in a class of 34 vs 24? And is that worth the cost?


    • navigio on Oct 14, 2013 at 12:33 pm10/14/2013 12:33 pm

      • 000

      as long as there is a perception that its ‘those kids’ who are in public schools (thanks to the media and school ‘choice’–charter and otherwise), taxpayers will never consider it worth the cost. regardless of whether its beneficial for those kids.

  5. el on Oct 14, 2013 at 11:15 am10/14/2013 11:15 am

    • 000

    Although the funding may have a number like “24” as a target, in real life to meet that target, you should be running your classes smaller to allow for the expected changes during the year as kids move in and out. One district in my county was making classes of 31 k/1st combo classes… and then another child would show up and they’d reshuffle all the kids. In some cases, this meant a kindergartener had 3 or more teachers by November, not exactly a good thing. Thus, I hope when people (particularly the finance people at the state) look at a limit like 24, that they’re targeting for 21 (say) and accepting some slop.

    And moving kids between schools to get your numbers exactly at the line? Ugh ugh ugh!!

    One other thing I want to say about the CSR studies. We have had only two classes of kids who experienced K-3 class size reduction in California graduate from high school. (And even those kids had substantial disruption due to the severe budget cuts in 2009+.) Measuring in 3rd or 4th grade may be convenient, but I’m not sure it would capture the full effect of the smaller classes, nor am I certain that test scores capture all the differences. It simply stands to reason that in a classroom of 30 kids, each child gets half as much time for one-on-one instruction, for grading of projects, etc, as a classroom of 15. I’ve been fortunate to have my child in a school with small class sizes and I think it is very positive for all the kids. Our school has kept this as a priority, and anecdotally, the teachers feel they can be much more effective and make much more of a difference in these smaller groups, especially when the kids come in behind and disadvantaged.

  6. Paul on Oct 14, 2013 at 8:58 am10/14/2013 8:58 am

    • 000

    Thank you, Caroline! When I heard Diane Ravitch speak in San Francisco several years ago, I thought that her “What do you want for your own children?” rejoinder (to politicians and experts with children in private schools) was brilliant.

    School districts love to dicker about whether CSR funds are sufficient to cover costs.

    The capital cost of new classrooms is one thing, but in truth, student enrollment has slumped in many parts of the state, leaving classrooms — and entire schools — vacant. A large share of capital funding comes from state-level school construction bonds, in any case.

    On the operating side, everything hinges on which costs are included, in some definition of overhead. For example, (re)opening several classrooms in an elementary school for CSR increases the number of custodians required but it in no way affects the number of site-level administrators or resource teachers required. Any district that applies a uniform overhead rate (including elements like principals’ salaries) is being dishonest. The operating overhead associated with CSR is quite small, because the total number of students does not increase.

    Let us consider LCF at full implementation (known prospective revenues) but without cost of living increases (unknown cost and revenue increases). In other words, let us use costs from this year (known costs and known prospective revenues). The simple, worst-case scenario of converting three 32-student classes to four 24-student ones would yield bonus LCF revenue of 96 x $712 = $68,352. This exceeds salary and benefit costs for one teacher in his or her first few years of service — precisely the sort of person who would be (re)hired for CSR purposes.

    It should be noted that part of the cost of class size “reduction” from a high maximum level is a natural cost of operating multiple multi-classroom schools. This is because it is impossible to fill every K-3 classroom in every school. Some rooms in some schools will have fewer students. Is this margin a class-size reduction-related expense? No. It is a cost of doing business. Populations don’t come to us in neat, 30-child blocks.

    School districts, like the one featured in the article, that whine about the difficulty of juggling classes are failing to recognize reality. I’ve taught in two districts whose central administrators were unaware of school site enrollment realities. In both cases, we started the year with high school classes as large as 50. New teachers were hired as late as October. (One district had a contractual maximum of 36, with penalties from mid-September, and the other had a budgeted level of 32.5, with no contractual limits or penalties.) I remember folding chairs and frustration. Well-run districts always set class sizes below maximum levels, to allow for inevitable enrollment variances and changes.


    • navigio on Oct 14, 2013 at 10:24 am10/14/2013 10:24 am

      • 000

      “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” – john dewey

      In districts where extensive ‘choice’ options are offered, these dynamics become much more complex.

      On one hand, it is possible to more closely control ’30-kid blocks’ by limiting the number of open spaces to a multiple of that number (even by grade where the number may differ from one grade to the next). In schools with high demand, this results in classes filled neatly, and a waiting list. Of course in schools with, um, lower demand, this does not happen and in fact it actually becomes more difficult to fill classes neatly because of the increased ability to leave the school through ‘choice’. This results in very small schools, often with combo classes (something that can further exacerbate parents leaving).

      Even worse, it is notoriously difficult to staff schools in such a district because it is never quite clear where students will be when the first day of school comes (even if they have committed to a choice school, they often have the right to their neighborhood spot). In addition, charter and private school leavers aren’t accurately known until school starts. This can lead to a spate of teacher shuffling and reassignment in the first few weeks (and I believe would even contribute to an increase in ‘temporary’ teacher classifications).

      We had a 3% reduction in actual enrollment compared to projected enrollment on the first day of school last year. Worse, that drop was concentrated in a few schools. This kind of change can be incredibly disruptive, especially as school year starts are moved up and norm day doesn’t happen for almost 2 months into the school year.

      I tend to agree that managing this disruption could be done better, though I think we have to admit that choice makes that more difficult and sometimes impossible. Unfortunately it’s an expense we don’t take into account when evaluating the cost of choice.

      • Paul Muench on Oct 16, 2013 at 6:08 am10/16/2013 6:08 am

        • 000

        Or maybe choice is not extnsive enough? Like the join’em to beat’em approach in SF?

        • navigio on Oct 16, 2013 at 7:50 am10/16/2013 7:50 am

          • 000

          depends what the goal is. if its to make sure everyone gets an education then increasing choice will just make things worse.

        • CarolineSF on Oct 16, 2013 at 10:06 am10/16/2013 10:06 am

          • 000

          SFUSD’s assignment system used variations on the all-choice approach before charter schools were on the radar, for the record, and not in response to the “reform” sector’s touting of choice. The district was scrambling to respond to a consent decree requiring an assignment system that diversified schools overlaid with a court ruling that essentially banned the use of race in the assignment system (based on the Ho decision after a lawsuit by Chinese parents). It’s essentially an anomaly. One outlier characteristic of our district is that the plurality of our students belong to a nonwhite subgroup that overall on average is a high-achieving demographic. (I was an SFUSD mom from 1996-2012.)

          • Paul Muench on Oct 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm10/16/2013 7:33 pm

            • 000

            I stand corrected.

  7. CarolineSF on Oct 14, 2013 at 7:09 am10/14/2013 7:09 am

    • 000

    Diane Ravitch cites a long list of studies showing the positive impact of smaller classes that the “going deeper” list could have mentioned.

    One obvious, though technically anecdotal, issue is that every high-end private school known to humanity touts its small class sizes as one of its primary attributes.


    • navigio on Oct 14, 2013 at 8:13 am10/14/2013 8:13 am

      • 000

      we can easily find out by making it a law that private school class size must equal public school class size..

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