For Katherine Hoffmore, it was a summer of uncertainty. She didn't know until one day before classes began what grade level she would be teaching and which classroom she would be in.
That was compounded when the assignment finally came though: her largest class yet, 31 kindergartners at Greer Elementary School in Sacramento. Some arrived not knowing how to stand in line or hold a glue stick or a pencil.
Several years ago, classes at the kindergarten through third-grade level in California commonly had only 20 students. But in the face of deep state budget cuts, school districts across the state have laid off teachers, combined classes and all but abandoned the 20-student target.
Hoffmore's district, San Juan Unified, has an average of 28 students in its K-3 classrooms. Sacramento City Unified has expanded to 32 students per class in those lower grades to save money.
"They're the sweetest kids, and they deserve so much better than that," Hoffmore said. "If our ratios were lower, we could offer a much more quality education."
In 1996, California launched its most expensive school reform by reducing class sizes to 20 students in the earliest grades, where impressionable children learn the most basic academic skills. The state has spent more than $25 billion on keeping class sizes low.
Then the recession struck, and state leaders slashed scores of programs. To help K-12 districts operate with less money, the state allowed them to increase class sizes without facing the steep penalties that once existed.
"I think class-size reduction by and large is gone," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. "That was abandoned by most schools in the fiscal crisis the last few years."
Under the change, a district with kindergarten classes of 31 students gets the same amount of money as a district with 25 students per class and loses only 30 percent of its class-size reduction bonus money.
Statewide, districts have reported expanding K-3 class sizes from 23 students to 26 since 2008-09, according to surveys conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. The state had the nation's highest student-to-teacher ratio in fall 2010, according to the National Education Association.
Long Beach Unified School District, the state's third-largest, has gone to 30 students per class in grades K-3. Fresno Unified is up to 26 students in kindergarten and first-grade classes and 30 students in second and third grades. Los Angeles Unified and Elk Grove Unified have a smaller, 24-to-1 ratio.
With the state's new voter-approved tax hikes and if the economy recovers as expected California schools could see a 24 percent funding spike over the next four years, according to Gov. Jerry Brown's latest budget.
But students may have to live with cramped classrooms a while longer. The Democratic governor has proposed allowing districts to maintain larger class sizes for the time being and slowly phase back toward a 24-to-1 ratio over several years. He does not propose returning to the former 20-student cap.
The governor instead is focused on directing money to districts with low-income students and English learners. He also wants to remove state education earmarks funding restricted to specific programs allowing districts to shrink class sizes, or extend the school year, increase salaries and serve other needs.
The concept has won fans from an unusual corner: Republican lawmakers who agree with Brown that the state should let districts decide on class size.
"While many people would agree there are benefits to reducing class sizes, those are discussions that communities can and should have with local school boards, rather than have decisions come from a distant Department of Education," said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, vice chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Education.
A topic of much debate
Torlakson said he is still studying the governor's plan, and Democratic leaders say they are open to his proposals.
But the California Teachers Association, one of the state's most powerful unions and a Brown ally, will likely fight to restore class-size reduction. The Legislative Analyst's Office last year estimated that recessionary budget cuts resulted in the loss of 32,000 teachers.
"The 20-to-1 class-size reduction is one of the most popular categorical programs ever among the citizens of California," said CTA President Dean E. Vogel. "It's been demonstrated over and over that this is an essential ingredient, and we think it should be the highest priority."
When it comes to debating the merits, experts often refer to a late 1980s Tennessee study that showed academic improvement with fewer students in a classroom in the early grades, particularly with low-income children. That study helped persuade California to pursue its own 1996 effort.
"This is one of the long-standing debates in education policy because reducing class sizes is quite expensive," said Thomas S. Dee, a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. "My view of the research is that there's a fairly firm consensus that students gain meaningfully from smaller classes."
Parents and educators instinctively feel that smaller class sizes are better because each student gets more attention, and Dee said that is one hypothesis. Another is that the learning environment is harmed by one or two disruptive children, and the more students in a class, the greater the odds that unruly ones exist.
Yet another theory is that with larger classes, more students fall through the cracks.
Lawrence Picus, a professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, said that while class-size reduction has benefits, districts with limited funds must consider what is most cost-effective. It may make more sense for some schools to keep large class sizes but add coaches and literacy aides to help teachers.
"At the end of the day, class-size reduction, I'm not sure that's where I'd put my money first," Picus said, adding he would look for ways to "help teachers become better teachers and find more help for students who need additional support."
Difficult to help everyone
At Greer Elementary School, in a lower-income neighborhood a few blocks east of Cal Expo, Hoffmore has the type of help Picus mentioned. She has an instructional assistant and an English-language learning aide to help relieve the pressures of teaching 31 students.
Greer pays for additional help with federal funds for Title I schools that serve low-income students, said principal Michelle Ramirez. In 2011-12, 97 percent of Greer students were eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program, while 33 percent were English learners.
San Juan also uses federal funds to keep some K-3 classrooms at 24-to-1 ratios at Title I schools, according to spokesman Trent Allen. Greer has those 24-student classrooms for first and second grade, for instance.
Though she appreciates assistance in the classroom, Hoffmore said nothing would help more than reducing class sizes. On a recent day, several students raised their hands trying to get attention after finishing an activity, while others needed help at the sink. Even with Ramirez on hand, not every student could be helped at once.
"If I had to choose, I guess because I'm a teacher and I'm impacted by the class size, I want class-size reduction," she said. "I have all these kids at so many different levels, and I want to give them targeted instruction. And I can't do that as quickly and as effectively when I have 31 students."