As budgets shrink, class sizes expand

From California to Florida, states are on the verge of rolling back what was once thought to be the most promising frontier of education reform: smaller class sizes.

Five years ago, when surpluses were the rule on Capitol Hill and across the nation, President Clinton pledged $12 billion to the idea. A year earlier, California alone promised $800 million. Yet now, states pinched by shrinking budgets are looking for programs to cut, and class-size initiatives are among the first on the chopping block.

To lawmakers, they're an easy target. Reducing class size is perhaps the single most expensive item of education reform, demanding more teachers and new facilities. Many educators also remain divided over how well it works.

To the public, however, class-size restrictions remain one of the most popular and common-sense reforms. As a result, the weakening of class-size initiatives nationwide is not likely to end the movement, experts say, rather it is the beginning of a new cycle of advance and retreat that will likely continue for years to come.

"It's completely on hold until there is more money," says Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution in Washington. But as soon as states bounce back, he adds, "It will be back on the table."

Among the states considering action:

• Legislators in California and Nevada have introduced bills to ease class-size restrictions by raising the maximum student-to-teacher ratio necessary to qualify for certain state money. In Nevada, for example, the accepted ratio for first grade would swell from 16-to-1 to 22-to-1.

• In his State of the State address last week, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested that the state would have to reconsider a class-size initiative passed by voters in October. He estimates it will cost $28 billion and lead to massive tax increases.

• Oklahoma has already issued class-size exemptions to 11 school districts. The districts say they could not balance their budgets without the waivers, which allow for a 29-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.

For some districts the situation is so dire that they can't wait for the state. Santa Cruz, Calif., has decided to increase class sizes regardless of what the Legislature does, potentially forfeiting state funds so it can save more by firing 28 teachers.

In the Bay Area, Antioch and Livermore have done the same - and they've heard complaints about it. As many as 1,300 parents thronged a school board meeting in Livermore last week with slogans designed to save small class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

Frank Jakubka was there with his first-grade son, Mitchell, and a sign that proclaimed: "Cut from the top, not from the class." Without the attention from teachers that smaller class sizes afford, he says, his son - an only child - would have had a far more difficult transition from home life to the social world of playtime and show-and-tell. "The teacher was able to work with him and put him in groups," Mr. Jakubka says. "It's working. You don't need scientific proof to see that."

What appears to Jakubka as obvious, though, is actually a question of deep debate. For many, Tennessee's Project STAR is the definitive document. Since its release in 1990, it has provided convincing evidence that smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade help students socially and academically throughout their entire lives. It is largely responsible for the spread of the class-size movement during the 1990s.

Since then, however, results have been less clear. While academic achievement has risen since the California initiative began, a study by the Class Size Reduction Research Consortium was unable to confirm that class sizes were a primary factor. The reason: the program was put together so hastily that researchers acknowledged they couldn't keep up.

That's a telling admission, some say. Unlike Tennessee, which methodically built up its program over years, many other states cobbled together their plans quickly - so they didn't miss the next big education trend. California's plan, for instance, was almost an afterthought, conceived and implemented in a matter of weeks after former Gov. Pete Wilson realized there would be a $1 billion surplus.

"We picked the 20-to-1 ratio based on how much money we had to spend," says Brett McFadden of the Association of California School Administrators in Sacramento. "We do these huge social experiments, but we do them with a political agenda rather than social data."

Now, the last states to buy in to the class-size fad are among the first looking to get out. Last year, California spent nearly $1.7 billion on its class-size initiative. With budgets tight, school districts want that money without the restrictions of class sizes. And without the long-term commitment and compelling research to back up such a costly program, more legislators are listening.

"It's a question of priorities," says Carol Kocivar of the California Parent-Teacher Association in Sacramento. "If you don't hold the line on what you believe is good for children, then it is going to disappear."

Most experts don't go that far. But they do suggest that, because of cost, funding for such initiatives is likely to ebb and flow even more than for other education programs, which are all historically vulnerable to the boom and bust of state budgets.

"When you hit a year like this one, it's not unforeseen that something like this would happen," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Very expensive initiatives like this are the first to go."

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