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Some Problems with “Class-Size-Reduction Reduction”

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Class Size Reduction Reduction

This is part of my chain of posts about using the flexibility in the rules for the current Class Size Reduction reimbursement program to deal with a major budget crisis in WCCUSD that is both specific to WCCUSD andpart of the general State budget crisis. Here are three specific problems with implementing the scenarios proposed by staff for what I like to call Class-Size-Reduction Reduction:

  1. QEIA Schools
  2. The Current Teachers’ Contract
  3. The Parcel Tax “Contract”


QEIA Schools

QEIA (Quality Education Investment Act) is the product of a legal suit by the predominant State teachers union, the CTA, over our convoluted State school finance measure called “Prop. 98.” The settlement resolved that the schools were underpaid by a certain amount in 2 years. However, instead of just giving the money to school districts, a new categorical program was created. Schools apply for the grants. Of course, one of the main features of this program is to reduce class sizes.

WCCUSD has four elementary schools in this program. As part of the law (according to this ASCA report), reduced class sizes in K-3 to 20:1 have to remain in place, so no across-the-board increase in K-3 class sizes can apply to them.

The Current Teachers Contract

Article 12 of the current teachers collective bargaining contract [PDF file] deals with staffing ratios. It says:

Where class reduction is implemented in grades K-3, the District will follow applicable State Class-Size-Reduction legislation.

The teachers union (UTR) maintains that, as long as a class size reduction program is in place at the State level, the 20:1 ratio needs to apply. I would argue that the K-3 Class Size Reduction was never a mandate, but a reimbursement program whose net payouts heavily incentivized a 20:1 or nothing approach in the past. The net payouts are the program. Now the penalties and thus the program are different.

This will ultimately have to be fought out through the grievance process. I thinks it’s fair to say that neither side in the contract agreement envisioned this kind of change in the CSR program would occur instead of just maintaining or eliminating it.

The Parcel Tax “Contract”

In WCCUSD, there is a parcel tax that was recently replaced by another parcel tax. In both measures, this is one of the purposes:

Maintaining reduced class sizes for kindergarten through third grade students

Legally, this doesn’t mandate that this be done. It only permits this use for designation for parcel tax expenditure.

Over time an explicit allocation from the parcel tax has been made of about $1.9M. This is the amount stipulated by staff to be the net savings from fully staffing K-3 classes after dispensing with the CSR reimbursement entirely. Now that the reimbursement program has changed, this amount has now ballooned. The staff scenario with the largest net saving would save $4M. The amount to fully staff has to be more than this. $5M or $7M or … It would have to be calculated. So, following the existing funding mechanism would require maintaining the older CSR class sizes to take up most of the $9M to $10M parcel tax. Is this worth it compared to other possible uses?

As someone who has participated in all 4 parcel tax campaigns, I think there was always the idea that if the CSR reimbursement were to go away, support CSR minimum class size would have to be revisited. The reimbursement has not been eliminated, but has been practically eliminated.

Others (like most of the Budget Advisory Committee that I chair) argue that none of this number stuff will matter. People will feel betrayed. Maintaining the 20:1 ratio is a “third rail.” Messing with this will eliminate any chance of passing another parcel tax.

Maybe there are more important things than passing the next parcel tax. The current one expires in 2014. We have a $25M hole now. Being fiscally responsible requires taking a chance. I would rather grab the third rail and try being honest with people. Yes, this is not K-3 class size reduction as many people conceived it when they supported the parcel tax (let’s say it’s been “abandoned” just to keep things simple), but it is what is necessary given the current budget situation even with a parcel tax in place.

Class Size Reduction

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Class Size Reduction Reduction

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.

Classroom Size Reduction Reduction

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Class Size Reduction Reduction

Supporting “classroom size reduction reduction,” moving some of the money the State of California allocates for Classroom Size Reduction using a new flexibility in the program to support filling in the huge structural deficit in the WCCUSD budget, is not a pleasant task or a great way to make friends, but it’s something that must be done or at least considered to the very end of the budget process. I’ll follow up with some more about this, but here’s a letter I sent to the agenda-setting committee for the WCCUSD School Board. Yes, I know it’s Good Friday, but I wanted to get it in in time:

Subject: Request for Agenda Item: Class Size Changes in K-3
Date: Fri, 10 Apr 2009 12:12:00 -0700
From: Charles Cowens 
To: Audrey Miles ,  Antonio Medrano , "Harter, Bruce" 
CC: Linda Grundhoffer <>,  "Gamba, Sheri" 

As an action agenda item at your next Board meeting, I hope you will
consider again the issue of increasing target class sizes in the K-3
grades as a cost savings measure. I also ask that you consider publicly
confirming one way or another as soon as the decision is made whether or
not this will be on the agenda.


1. Changes in the State Classroom Size Reduction (CSR) reimbursement
program have made it possible to achieve significant net savings in a
whole continuum of scenarios up to staffing to the legal maximum for
grades K-3.

2. The potential savings far exceed the amount set aside in previous
parcel tax designations for supporting CSR ($1.9 million stipulated as
the foregone savings from staffing to maximum, given the old CSR
program's rules and actual staff salaries).

3. WCCUSD has a $25 million structural deficit.

4. The Board has already passed a PKS for eliminating positions in K-3
that when combined with projected attrition could allow the elimination
of around 95(?) FTE of K-3 teachers.

5. At the last meeting of the Board, 4 scenarios were presented within
the constraints of the PKS and projections for attrition.

6. 4 out of 5 Board members supported some proposal to increase class
sizes in grades K-3, but no one proposal had a majority.

7. There was no motion made or discussed to reject any attempt to use
the new CSR flexibility out of hand.

8. No alternative source of funding that didn't require contract
collective bargaining was proposed at the meeting.

9. Deadlines are approaching for the next interim budget report and
confirming notices associated with the PKS.

10. While using the new program rules for CSR reimbursement for net
savings is not yet a public explicit budget "check list item" like
school closures, completely foregoing this new flexibility to help
reduce the structural deficit can only increase the chances that WCCUSD
will eventually lose local control.

Charles Cowens

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