Class-size bills cut expenses


– A bill to relax popular class-size reduction laws in
California could translate into as much as $400,000 of savings in
teacher salaries for Gilroy Unified School District.
GILROY – A bill to relax popular class-size reduction laws in California could translate into as much as $400,000 of savings in teacher salaries for Gilroy Unified School District.

The dollar figure represents 13 percent of the $3 million the district needs to cut from its budget over the next 18 months, due to the state’s record $34 billion revenue shortfall.

“This would be a big cost savings for us, and at the same time it won’t take away the educational benefit of smaller class sizes,” Superintendent Edwin Diaz said. “We expect it would allow us to cut back on about five to six teaching positions. We don’t want to make the cuts by laying people off. We think normal (teacher) attrition will be enough.”

Late last week the bill won the approval of the state Senate. It now moves on to the state Assembly, where two similar bills are being considered.

Both houses must agree on one of the bills before the governor can sign any change to the class-size reduction program into law. Gov. Gray Davis has not taken a clear stand on either of the bills.

“They may decide to dump everything and start over, but there is a sense of urgency to get something passed now,” said Lynn Piccoli, manager of the class-size reduction program at the state Department of Education.

Flexibility of class-size reduction guidelines takes on added significance in these budget-lean times since the governor already has proposed midyear budget cuts of 10.8 percent for the program.

Because it contains a special “urgency clause,” the Senate bill is the only version that would take immediate effect if signed by the governor, Piccoli said. However, that bill contains technical problems and conflicting language, she said.

“The way it’s worded now, we would be prohibited from paying districts for half-day class-size reduction programs. I think that was unintended in the legislation,” Piccoli said.

The state spends $1.6 billion on the class-size reduction program, which lawmakers enacted in 1996. Last school year, GUSD took in $2.77 million from the state, putting 3,121 students in smaller classes.

A 10.8 percent cut translates into a $315,000 loss, Diaz says, for GUSD, making the $400,000 savings on teacher salaries, benefits and classroom supplies more significant.

“(The 10.8 percent cut) is a double impact, because the program already encroaches on our general fund,” Diaz said.

GUSD spends $417,000 of its own funds to pay for the additional teacher salaries, health benefits and classroom supplies needed to operate 20-to-1 student-to-teacher ratios across kindergarten through third grade.

Meanwhile, educators remain wary of potential cuts to class-size reduction.

“Twenty-two students to one teacher is doable, but we don’t want to see this continue going in the wrong direction,” said Michelle Nelson, president of the Gilroy Teachers Association.

Under both the Senate and Assembly bills, an average of 20 students to one teacher would remain. The Senate bill calls for the average to apply district-wide. The Assembly bill calls for the average to be carried out on a school-by-school basis.

Nelson prefers the Assembly version because it makes it more difficult to have a situation where one site has every class under the 20-to-1 average and another site has every class above it.

“It’s more likely to be equitable if you average (the student-to-teacher ratio) on a site-by-site basis,” Nelson said.

The California Teachers Association have called the legislation an “attack” that will “undermine” class-size reduction.

“Some unscrupulous administrators are making the ridiculous claim that there is no data to show that class-size reduction has any positive impact on student achievement,” CTA President Wayne Johnson stated in a recent press release.

CTA points to several studies indicating smaller classes help students improve.

An April 2001 study of 20,000 students enrolled in Los Angeles Unified School District showed that test scores were higher in smaller classes and smaller classes produced the highest results in low-achieving, year-round schools.

A Tennessee study of 6,500 students across 79 schools showed that students in classes with 15 to 17 kids outperformed students in classes of 22 to 25.

Other studies, coming out of Princeton and Arizona State University, show that class-size reduction makes it easier for minorities and disadvantaged students to close the achievement gap between their nonminority and nondisadvantaged counterparts.

GUSD has 1,210 English Language Learners enrolled in kindergarten through third grade, a rough estimate of its number of minority students potentially impacted by class-size reduction. Nearly 1,700 kindergarten through third-grade students participate in the free and reduced lunch program, indicating how many disadvantaged students in GUSD schools can take part in class-size reduction.

Saving money by reducing the amount of teachers the GUSD needs also has lead school board trustees to inquire about the potential for combination classes.

The controversial practice allows districts to reduce costs by using fewer teachers per school site. For instance, instead of splitting a first-grade class with 22 kids into two first-grade classes of 11 students, second-grade classrooms that have less than 20 students would absorb the excess first-graders.

Currently, only one Gilroy class is combined. Other districts in the state use the cost-saving system across kindergarten through third-grade classes at each school site.


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