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Governor Tells Plan to Reduce Class Size

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Times Staff Writer

With an eventual goal of only 20 students for each teacher, Gov. George Deukmejian on Saturday proposed a six-year, $450-million program to reduce California’s overcrowded high school classrooms in the critical subject areas of English, math and science.

Deukmejian told a statewide radio broadcast that legislation to be carried by state Sen. Becky Morgan (R-Los Altos Hills) would implement the first phase by earmarking $75 million in the next state budget for classroom reductions in grades 9 through 12. The same legislation would set aside another $35 million, he said, for a similar program in grades 1 through 3 in the basic subjects of reading, writing and spelling.

“The fact is that while California ranks near the top of states when it comes to teachers’ salaries, we rank near the bottom in terms of class size,” he said in the brief address.

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Honig Critical of Plan

Although he has been an advocate for years of reductions in classroom size, State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig criticized Deukmejian’s proposal Saturday for failing to give school districts the flexibility to decide the best course for improving education in their particular circumstances.

The governor, who used the broadcast to provide specific details of his earlier promise to make lowering classroom size a top priority, said the $110 million for the program would come from funds generated by Proposition 98, the ballot measure narrowly approved by the voters in November. It requires that roughly 40% of the state’s General Fund budget be devoted to public education. Only 37% of the budget is now being spent on education.

Deukmejian emphasized that his program was designed to provide financial incentives for local school districts to reduce class size--not to mandate that they participate.

The governor’s press secretary, Kevin Brett, said it was the governor’s goal that both programs would be ongoing, with $75 million to be set aside each year for the next six years to reduce overcrowding in high schools, and a varying amount to be devoted to the elementary schools, depending on each year’s budget constraints. He said projections were that it would take at least six years to reduce classroom size to 20 from a statewide average now estimated to be 27.

Crucial Years

He said the early grades of elementary school and the final grades of high schools were singled out for the program because numerous studies have shown those are crucial years when students need more concentrated instruction.

For the high school grades, Brett predicted, the money probably will be spent hiring more teachers, while in the elementary grades it would be used in several ways, including providing for more assistant teachers and team teaching.

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Honing, however, noted that in previous years Deukmejian had vetoed legislation by Sen. Gary K. Hart, (D-Santa Barbara) that would have established similar programs. The governor has said he vetoed that legislation because there was no money to finance the programs at that time.

What if the local school district had already significantly cut classroom sizes, Honig asked, but had a critical need for other programs which may, for example, deal with dropouts or teacher training?

“A comprehensive program for school improvement is a lot more powerful,” Honig said. “The problem with class size is that it takes you a long, long time to do it. It takes so long to make a difference. . . . I think we’re going to get a discussion (in the Legislature) that class size is not the only thing that is going to make schools better.”

Governor Accused

At the same time, Honig, an architect of Proposition 98, accused the governor of undermining the original intent of the initiative by refusing to provide sufficient funds in his budget for schools to keep pace with the 4.8% annual inflation rate. As a result, he said, the governor’s budget proposal would force schools to cut back, even though it would provide funds for the program to reduce classroom size.

“What gets us the most upset are statements to the effect . . . that schools are living high on the hog, that (Proposition 98) gave them all this extra money,” he said. “We didn’t get a dime extra.”

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