February 5, 2014

Sacramento area school districts resist push for smaller class sizes

Gov. Jerry Brown’s new school funding plan promises smaller class sizes, but that is more dream than reality at some California districts. Even if teachers want smaller class sizes, districts such as Sacramento City Unified School District say they can’t afford them.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s new school funding plan promises smaller class sizes, but that is more dream than reality at some California districts.

The mandate seems simple enough: Schools with crowded classrooms must begin reducing kindergarten to third-grade class sizes or face a roughly 10 percent reduction in funding. But one big loophole exists: Districts can keep the larger classes if their teachers unions agree.

Historically, unions have supported smaller class sizes, which generally require districts to hire more teachers. But after agreeing to reductions during the recession, some teachers may see restoring pay hikes and benefits for current employees as a priority.

Even if teachers want smaller class sizes, districts such as Sacramento City Unified School District say they can’t afford them. The urban district stands to lose $7.1 million in state per-pupil funding because of declining enrollment next school year, said Ken Forrest, chief business officer for the Sacramento city school district. The district also faces rising costs for employee pay and health care.

“Ninety percent-plus of our budget is already done, already committed,” Forrest said of the 2014-15 school year.

For now, the Sacramento city school district is operating under an existing contract with teachers that specifies class sizes by grade and supersedes the state mandate. The issue is expected to be the subject of negotiations for a new contract that will get underway this month.

Among large school districts, Sacramento City Unified has the largest K-3 class-size limits in the region: 32 for kindergarten and 31 for first through third grades. San Juan Unified is close behind, with a 31-student class maximum in the four grade levels. Twin Rivers Unified and Natomas Unified max out at 30.

“When I started teaching, there were 20 students per class, then 25. Now there are 30,” said Jaymee Nazari, a kindergarten teacher at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in the Sacramento city school district. “Now, it’s almost unmanageable.”

Nazari makes it work by scheduling parent volunteers for small-group activities and by teaching social and life skills – such as tying shoestrings and pulling up zippers – early in the school year. Friday, her class of 30 kindergartners were quietly painting, folding and assembling crafts to celebrate Chinese New Year with the help of four mothers.

Sharma Shivani, who has a child in the class, was working with a group of students making red Chinese New Year envelopes. “I think small groups work better,” she said. “It’s hard to hold their attention, hold eye contact. It takes time and concentration.”

Classes at the high-performing east Sacramento school are orderly and well-managed, but there are signs of crowding. To make space for students inside, backpacks hang from hooks outside some classrooms. Kindergarten classes used to rely on one large reading mat with 20 squares, but now two need to be pushed together to accommodate 32 students.

Principal Andrea Egan can’t say whether smaller classes help students academically, but she believes they can enhance a school’s culture. Small classes help teachers meet the socio-emotional needs of students and parent expectations that their children will get individual attention, she said.

Test scores have continued to rise at the school despite growing class sizes, Egan said. “It’s doable, but is it what we want for our kids?”

The state’s new school-funding formula, which took effect this school year, sets a goal of 24 students per classroom but gives districts a phase-in period. Under Brown’s latest budget proposal, districts must reduce their class-size gap by 28 percent by next school year unless the teachers union negotiates otherwise. Kindergarten classrooms in the Sacramento city school district would have to get below an average of 30 students to qualify.

Sacramento City Unified can’t afford to do that, either, Forrest said.

Sacramento City Teachers Association President Nikki Milevsky said class-size reduction will be part of contract discussions. But she agrees that the 24-student target “is too far of a reach” considering the district’s finances. She isn’t sure whether the union will push for the incremental reduction, saying union members still need to review all the information.

Teachers in the district have pushed for lower class sizes for years, Milevsky said. In 2010-11 and 2011-12 teachers agreed to give back $95 a month each to keep K-3 class sizes at 25 students – a promise she said district leaders didn’t keep the second year.

“Under past leadership, we’ve found it wasn’t a priority of the district to keep class sizes low,” Milevsky said.

Both she and Forrest agree that the district and teachers need to develop a plan to meet the requirement in future years. “I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you most people would like to see small class sizes,” Forrest said.

Other districts are considering reducing class sizes – if the budget allows. San Juan Unified will “look at the option when resources become available,” said Trent Allen, district spokesman. Its contract with teachers expires this year, and class-size reduction is likely to be part of negotiations.

“Reducing class sizes is something of high interest,” Allen said.

Roseville City Unified won’t see a change to its per-class maximums for K-3 grades, as its 2014-15 contract with its union has already been negotiated, said district officials. The district is under the state maximum in kindergarten and first grade, with 23 students per class, but is hovering around 27 students per class in the second and third grades.

Natomas Unified has a contract that allows 30 students in each elementary class. The district is required to pay teachers an additional $10 per student per day for each pupil that exceeds the limit. District officials report their class sizes average 27 students in kindergarten, 24 in first grade, 26 in second grade and 29 in third grade.

Lily Williams, vice president for the California PTA’s Third District, representing eight Northern California counties, said her statewide organization was instrumental in pushing the state to reduce class sizes in 1996. The state began offering financial incentives to districts to shrink teacher-student ratios in kindergarten through third grade.

It worked for a while, but the last recession and years of state budget cuts sent class sizes soaring to 30-plus students as many districts laid off teachers to balance budgets. In 2009, the Legislature agreed to pay districts some of their class-size reduction funds even if they exceeded the 20-student limit. Given the choices – bigger classes or broader cuts – most districts have opted to increase class sizes.

Research on class size is mixed. A 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that reducing classes by 10 students increased student achievement about 4 percentage points in mathematics and 3 percentage points in reading. But it also found that California’s fast adoption of class-size reduction resulted in districts hiring inexperienced teachers. Classes with those newly minted instructors suffered a 3 percentage point drop in mathematics and reading.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford, calls class-size reduction “one of the worst policies in the state of California.” He said districts are better off spending money on highly effective teachers.

But smaller classes remain popular among parents, who want their children to receive as much individual attention as possible. At recent meetings Sacramento City Unified held on school funding, parents routinely wanted to discuss when the district would start shrinking class sizes, Williams said.

Most parents, she said, don’t realize the state left an exemption in the new class-size reduction mandate.

“I think most parents think it is mandatory,” she said.

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