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.
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.
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.
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.”