SAN FRANCISCO -- California embarked on an ambitious experiment in 1996 to improve its public schools by putting its youngest students in smaller classes. Nearly 17 years later, the goal of maintaining classrooms of no more than 20 pupils in the earliest grades has been all but discarded-- a casualty of unproven results, dismal economic times and the sometimes-fleeting nature of education reform.
To save money on teacher salaries amid drastic cutbacks in state funding, many school districts throughout the state have enlarged their first-, second- and third-grade classes to an average of 30 children, the maximum allowed under a 1964 law, state finance officials and education experts said. Hundreds more have sought -- and been granted -- waivers authorizing them to push enrollment in individual kindergarten and primary grade classrooms to 35 and above.
"The more bodies you have in a room, I don't care who it is, the harder it is for one person to conduct business," said Monique Segura, a kindergarten teacher in Santa Barbara County's Orcutt Union Elementary School District who has seen her classes grow from 20 pupils in fall of 2008 to 32 this year. "And that's especially true when you are dealing with young children who are learning how to behave and how to conduct themselves in a classroom situation."
Last week, Orcutt Union was among five school districts that received permission from the California State Board of Education to allow their classes to grow to 35 to 38 pupils in one case. Segura, president of the local teacher's union in Orcutt, said her organization had no choice but to stay neutral on the district's request. If the union had opposed it, the district faced $200,000 a year in penalties for exceeding the cap put in place almost a half-century ago.
"We are caught in a very difficult place," she said.
Although Gov. Jerry Brown said this month that the worst of California's education funding drought is over, due in large part to voter approval of his sales and income tax initiative, a return to classes as small as the ones a decade ago is not envisioned any time soon.
In his budget for next year, Brown has proposed a new method for calculating how districts are funded, both to provide more flexibility at the local level and to steer money toward schools with the greatest needs. When the revised formula is fully implemented in about seven years, the governor wants K-3 classes to meet a new maximum of 24 pupils for every teacher -- except in districts where parents, teachers and school board members agree to go higher.
The state Department of Finance still is working with education leaders to figure out what benchmarks the 1,073 districts and charter schools that serve elementary school-age children need to meet until then to remain eligible for a portion of the $1.3 billion the state now spends a year to keep class sizes down.
"We left the era of class size reduction in California a few years ago, when our funding collapsed during the Great Recession," said Bob Blattner, a public school consultant and lobbyist. "Now, we are trying, in a sense, to reinstitute a smaller class size philosophy, but dropping down to 20-to-1 is not something we are likely to see again."
Some districts, like Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest, and San Diego Unified, the second-largest, have avoided adding a lot of students to each K-3 class by scheduling unpaid furlough days that have resulted in fewer days of learning for all students. Others, such as San Bernardino City Unified School District, have instituted furloughs for everyone but teachers and bumped up classes to 33 pupils.
The effect of budget cuts on class sizes has not been limited to early grades. In 2010, the most recent year for which estimates were available, California had the nation's highest overall student-teacher ratio, with an average of 24 students for every teacher compared to a national average of 16, according to the National Education Association.
The 24-to-1 ratio includes subject specialists and other educators without fulltime classroom assignments, so the reality on the ground is that many teachers have more than two dozen students, Stephen McMahon, chief business officer for the San Jose Unified School District.
San Jose Unified, the 25th largest district in California, started moving away from the 20-to-1 model during the 2004-05 school year after local voters rejected a tax that would have kept it going in 3rd grade. It abandoned the standard in the other early grades with the onset of the recession in 2008, when the state gave districts the option of still receiving 70 percent of their class size reduction money if their classrooms had 25 or more students.
"We run pretty close to 30 everywhere," McMahon said. "I don't think class size reduction is done, but what's done is the idea if you lower class sizes across the board it will solve every problem."
When California joined 15 other states with mandatory or voluntary class size limits in 1996, the objective behind offering financial incentives to keep rosters at 20 or below seemed obvious. If teachers had fewer children in their classrooms, they would be able to give students more individual attention and spot those at risk of falling behind.
The state created an incentive program that paid school districts $535 for every K-3 student who was in a class of 20 for half the day and $1,070 for each one who was in a class that small for the whole day.
Though popular with parents and teachers, the state's massive investment -- $6 billion in the program's first five years -- did not prove to be the academic achievement panacea its boosters, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson, had hoped. A series of state-commissioned studies found no clear correlation between class downsizing and academic achievement. In the years since, states have started looking at more cost-effective ways of promoting improvement, such as identifying strong and weak teachers.
"The issue isn't whether smaller classes are better than larger classes. The issue is how you want to invest limited educational resources," said Brookings Institution fellow Matthew Chingos, who has reviewed research on class size reduction efforts.
California State PTA president Carol Kocivar said she hopes the state does not abandon its commitment to smaller classes for young children who may benefit emotionally from personal attention. The governor's plan to cap K-3 classes at 24 would be an improvement from where things stand now, but still a setback for parents and teachers who thought even 20 pupils to a class was pushing it, Kocivar said.
"Several decades ago, California was leader in serving our children, and now we are digging ourselves out of the bottom," she said. "For a whole generation of kids, we have to dig a lot faster."