FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAY
Brayden Cuong Le, left, and Heaven Nguyen assemble blocks and pyramids during their preschool class at Land School in Westminster, Calif.

The rapid rollout of a hugely ambitious plan to reduce elementary school class sizes in California over two decades ago should serve as a cautionary tale for how quickly the state should implement universal preschool, a long-sought-after goal of children’s advocates and their allies in the Legislature.

It may also give incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom some cover for not moving aggressively to implement universal preschool, which he said he was committed to on the campaign trail. He articulated universal preschool as part of an ambitious, multi-pronged “cradle-to-career” system of education in the state.

But what Newsom left unsaid was when and how fast he would move to introduce universal preschool, which is generally understood to mean providing state subsidized preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds before they enter kindergarten.

The state’s 1996 class size reduction program was hugely popular with parents and teachers. But it also had a range of unintended consequences, especially during the first years it was implemented. It provides some sobering guidance as to how not to do it.

The program was laden with good intentions: to reduce class sizes to 20 students in kindergarten through the 3rd grade, based on the belief and some compelling research that smaller class sizes improve student academic outcomes.

The program came about as a result of an unusual confluence of forces. In the summer of 1996, the state was projecting a budget surplus of $1.3 billion. The Legislature, with the assent of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, approved a class-size reduction plan that would provide districts $650 for every student in a K-12 classroom with 20 or fewer students. The cost to the state in its first year: $1 billion — about $1.6 billion in current dollars.

The program was slated to begin that very same fall — less than two months after passage of the bill in the Legislature — setting off a “mad scramble,” in the words of a 2002 EdSource report, to find the space, equipment and teachers needed to implement it..

Then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin was charged with making it happen. The program was rolled out over a matter of weeks in time for the opening of school in 1996.

Just getting classrooms to house the smaller classes was a challenge in itself. She convened meetings with the California Manufactured Housing Institute, “begging them to double and triple shifts to build portable classrooms,” she recalled several years ago. To get the portables to schools throughout the state, she had to request a waiver from the California Highway Patrol to allow trucking companies to transport wide loads on state highways over Labor Day weekend.

Finding teachers was another headache. More affluent districts were able to lure teachers away from poorer ones, leaving the latter  worse off than before. Others had no choice but to hire teachers without full credentials. In many cases, classroom space and money were taken from other programs to get the class size reduction initiative off the ground.

On top of that, in the early years at least, there was no conclusive evidence that the program led to improved academic outcomes, according to a research consortium set up to study it. The consortium consisted of several leading research and policy organizations.

In subsequent years, some of the early problems were ironed out. Teacher recruiting efforts were ramped up, and teachers on temporary credentials eventually converted them to full credentials. Small K-3 class sizes became a part of the education landscape.

But eventually one fundamental weakness of program — its dependence on annual infusions of extra state dollars — turned out to be its undoing. During the Great Recession, the class size reduction program was scaled back, and under Gov. Jerry Brown’s watch, was officially abolished in 2013. Soon K-3 class sizes grew in many school districts across the state to 30 students, the maximum allowed by state law.

As part of the landmark Local Control Funding Formula, Gov. Brown has built in financial  incentives for districts to reduce K-3 class sizes to 24 students. But in most districts, class sizes of 20 students are a thing of the past.

The 2002 EdSource report, based on the work of a special research consortium set up to look at the impact of the program, concluded with a sobering section on “lessons learned” that it said should “apply to future education reform efforts.”

No one is suggesting that universal preschool should be introduced in a few weeks along the lines of  the class size reduction program. But as legislators introduce bills to implement universal preschool next year, and to push the next governor in that direction, the lessons from an earlier era still seem relevant. Among them:

  • Be clear about where a given initiative fits within the state’s overall education plan;
  • Start small before creating a new, expensive statewide program;
  • Assess the capacity of the state’s education system to implement change;
  • Allow flexibility to accommodate local differences;
  • Allow sufficient time to implement large-scale initiatives.

“In the future,” the report said, “any large initiative should have ample time for districts and schools to plan between passing it into law and implementing it.”

The last lesson may be the most important one and it is one that Newsom seems to be well aware of.

Last week in Fresno, Newsom indicated that expanding early childhood education will still be a top priority of his administration, and suggested that he will propose additional spending for it in his first budget, which he will unveil in January.

But he is also tempering expectations of a rapid expansion of preschool to serve all California’s 4-year-olds even though he believes in it, and despite the huge budget surplus he stands to inherit.

“We all will live within our means,” he told The Sacramento Bee  last week. “We’re not going to deviate from being fiscally prudent.”

He also acknowledged the logistical challenges.

“Even if you wanted to provide universal preschool, you could not achieve that in the immediate term,” he said. “It would take years and years to build out that infrastructure.”

 

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  1. Sue 1 month ago1 month ago

    I believe the state could fund universal preschool for all 4 year olds if they used the money currently spent on TK (for only approximately 1/3 of 4 year olds) combined with money for programs with less direct impact to student preparation/learning (e.g. this year's $100,000,000 for the voluntary one time matching program for eligible classified employees to defer up to 9.9% of their salaries for the matching funds and other such short term, programs). … Read More

    I believe the state could fund universal preschool for all 4 year olds if they used the money currently spent on TK (for only approximately 1/3 of 4 year olds) combined with money for programs with less direct impact to student preparation/learning (e.g. this year’s $100,000,000 for the voluntary one time matching program for eligible classified employees to defer up to 9.9% of their salaries for the matching funds and other such short term, programs). Running preschool programs can be somewhat less expensive than running TK programs due to the differences in credentialing requirements and salary schedules. Switching and expanding existing TK programs into universal preschool for all 4 year olds would close the equity gaps created by TK (due to the birthdate requirements) and provide all students a rich preschool experience before K. These preschools for 4 year olds would not be required to (but could) operate on school campuses or as part of a district program–thereby opening facilities and options.

  2. Wayne Bishop 1 month ago1 month ago

    Dismiss these petty concerns. The primary function of K-8 public education in most parents’ eyes is tax paid child care. Extending that down to pre-K may not make any difference educationally (it won’t if there is not some level of actual teaching) but the primary purpose will be met.

  3. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 1 month ago1 month ago

    The language of this story describing Class Size Reduction seems so cautious and reluctant and essentially negative! Class-size reduction of 1996 -- 20 kids per K-3 classroom -- was a watershed in California public education. It happened to be the spur for my election to San Diego's Board of Education in that same year. That once-in-my-lifetime-in-California moment coincided with Bush-era No Child Left Behind requirements for community participation in schools, for establishing academic standards … Read More

    The language of this story describing Class Size Reduction seems so cautious and reluctant and essentially negative! Class-size reduction of 1996 — 20 kids per K-3 classroom — was a watershed in California public education. It happened to be the spur for my election to San Diego’s Board of Education in that same year.

    That once-in-my-lifetime-in-California moment coincided with Bush-era No Child Left Behind requirements for community participation in schools, for establishing academic standards and for accountability for achievement from principals, teachers, parents and students. It was all good and pretty radical. It also was undermined in short order.

    CSR was a remarkable positive change to improve early literacy and numeracy in historically small classrooms where the teacher really could know his students and spend time with them as they worked on developing crucial skills. CSR was good for everyone.

    If universal pre-school’s rollout is anything like CSR, it will be a boon. I hope it becomes a permanent feature of California public education and not the passing fancy that CSR became in the rush to retreat to a familiar status quo.

    Gavin Newsom, with small kids of his own, will need to understand the depth of entrenched resistance to transforming desultory California public education.

  4. Kathleen Hebbeler 1 month ago1 month ago

    Thanks for a very thoughtful piece. I often use the example of California’s class size reduction with colleagues around the country to make the point that good things that come too fast and without adequate planning can turn out not to be so good after all. Infrastructure matters.