In my Classroom Size Reduction Reduction post, I showed how I was urging the WCCUSD Board to agendaize the topic of increasing K-3 class sizes, yet again. So, how did we get to this point in the first place?

What drives class sizes in K-3 in California is the State’s Class Size Reduction reimbursement program. This is a set of rules that provides a $1,070/student reimbursement for classes up to about 20 students and then takes the money back through penalties if the class sizes for reimbursed classes creeps up even a little over the 20:1 ratio. Under the system in place, there was very little leeway for inching up the class size.

Now the rules have changed for this year on. But, instead of just eliminating this categorical program and folding the money into the paltry general funds available for schools, the State adopted a wacky approach that would simply relax the penalties and allow school districts to “choose” how much to use flexibility from reduced staffing to fill their budget holes. (Here’s a page on the Association of California School Administrators Web site with a good description of the new rules.) All of the political flak comes down on local school boards, not the State, if they dare to move on this. Thanks!

To show the difference between the old and new programs, I posted a spreadsheet on Google Docs. It consists of tabs showing (in a very simplified way) the impact on a district like WCCUSD under the new rules, the old rules, and a chart showing the difference. The net savings available from going away from 20:1 while still receiving some reimbursement are substantial.

Is upping the sizes for classes from 20:1 the end of the world? No. The evidence for the benefits of smaller classes is actually somewhat mixed, especially when we’re talking about relatively high sizes like in California. Here are links to The Center for Public Education and EdWeek’s Research Center. The consensus seems to be that, in order to get results, you need to go down to the numbers from the Tennessee STAR study, 15:1.

It’s undeniable that smaller classes have benefits outside of the scope of these studies. Smaller classes are one way to attract and retain teachers. Also, smaller classes are an easily visible feature for pleasing parents. But, in the face of a large budget crisis, these are not sufficient reasons to hold to the 20:1 class size for every school.

At the last 2 Board meetings, scenarios have been presented by staff for a partial retrenchment from the 20:1 class size in K-3. (Here’s a summary of the options taken from the staff document.) These scenarios all involve across-the-board change in class sizes for different grade levels. None of them involve a complete roll back to maximum or close-to-maximum class sizes. For one thing, not enough layoff notices were approved by the March 15th deadline to do anything like this. (This posterior-backwards method of budget decision-making will have to be a subject of another post.)

I’ve suggested an alternative approach that would still obtain net savings. The rules of the CSR program allow differences on a school-by-school basis and not just grade-by-grade. Why not allow the class sizes to go up to the maximum or almost maximum in schools that don’t need the benefit of smaller class sizes as much and focus remaining resources on Title I schools that need it the most. Treat smaller class sizes as a targeted intervention instead of as an equally spread entitlement. With the expanded Title I money in the stimulus that will probably stick to some degree on an ongoing basis, these schools can further drive down the ratios to Tennessee-STAR levels of 15:1 where they might make a difference in terms of the consensus of research.