Class sizes in California--the highest in the nation--could be dramatically reduced in the primary grades under an agreement reached early Wednesday by Gov. Pete Wilson and the state's top legislative leaders.
Resolving a key issue in the delayed state budget, Wilson and the legislators agreed to pump $771 million into the state's elementary schools to lower class size in kindergarten through third grade to 20 students per teacher.
Offering the largest single infusion of money for school reform in the state in 10 years, the class-size agreement is being hailed as a historic event for public education in California.
"For the state, it is quite clearly a watershed," said Theodore Mitchell, a former dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Services. "It really represents a commitment on the part of the governor, the superintendent and now the Legislature to focus attention on the fundamental conditions of education in the state."
If the ambitious undertaking succeeds, class size in the early elementary years would be at their lowest levels in more than 30 years.
News of the funding initiative stirred excitement in many school districts that were already planning smaller classes, and struggling to find ways to pay for them.
"I think this is the start of a renaissance" for public education in the state, said Walt Buster, the superintendent of the rapidly growing Clovis Unified School District in Central California.
But in other overcrowded school districts, officials said ruefully that the funding package in its present form may present insurmountable problems, rather than solutions.
At Santa Ana Unified, the largest kindergarten through 12th grade school district in Orange County with 50,000 students, Deputy Supt. Joseph Tafoya said Wilson's budget plan would not help its overcrowding because the district has no room for new classrooms, even portable ones.
"The concept of the 20:1 student-teacher ratio is a great idea educationally, but it doesn't work for us," Tafoya said. "We have a tremendous crunch problem. . . . The cost of acquiring land would be prohibitive. We've already maxed out the portables and the land. It's just not a reality for us."
Santa Ana administrators have had to put 29 of their 44 schools on year-round programs to address the growing problem of overcrowded classrooms.
Another problem is finding teachers, educators said Wednesday.
"Getting many teachers statewide who are trained to teach primary grade students is going to be a challenge," said Peter A. Hartman, superintendent of the Saddleback Unified School District. "It's probably going to be an impossibility for every district statewide to find enough qualified teachers to meet the governor's plan."
The class size package is based on the state's estimate that it will cost about $775 per student to reach the 20-students-per-classroom goal. Wilson and the legislators agreed to give schools $650 per student; local districts would have to come up with the remaining $125 or so per student that they may need to pay for smaller classes.
The money must be used to lower class sizes in the first and second grades, although districts have the option of applying the money to kindergarten and third grade as well.
The agreement gives districts the option of receiving a smaller amount of money--$350 instead of $650 per student--to lower class size only for the part of the school day devoted to reading and math.
And in addition to the money for new teachers and other costs, the state intends to spend $200 million to buy 5,000 portable classrooms, Senate budget analysts said.
School districts are not required to accept the incentive funds or reduce class size. But the political and parental pressure on schools to use the money will be enormous.
Class size is considered a crucial element of school reform, with most studies showing that the best conditions for learning include classes of no more than 15 students each. In California, elementary teachers often have classrooms of 30 or more students.
Some experts say the $775-per-student estimate of the cost of the dramatically smaller classes falls short of the actual cost of operating schools with only 20 students in each room. Those costs include hiring new teachers or, on crowded campuses, buying portable classrooms to handle the overflow of students no longer in classrooms.
That worries officials in giant districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, as well as smaller systems, such as San Marino.
"Even with $650 [per student], that wouldn't cover the cost for a new teacher," said Jack Rose, the associate superintendent of the San Marino Unified School District. "A first-year teacher with benefits costs $40,000. If you bring in a relocatable [portable classroom], that's $30,000. So one classroom can cost $100,000 very quickly."
In Los Angeles Unified, where at least a third of the 650,000 students attend campuses so crowded they operate year-round, officials received news of the class-size deal cautiously.
"We will not pass up this opportunity. We will find some way of getting the most that we can," said Jeff Horton, newly elected president of the Board of Education.
"The obstacles we will have to overcome are finding qualified teachers, [and] finding a place to put classes or some way of making smaller classes in existing space, which in some schools is the only option we'll have."
In the Anaheim City Unified School District, which is growing by about 1,000 students annually, Supt. Roberta Thompson said Wilson's plan only benefits wealthier districts with available space.
The Anaheim district, which has not built a school since 1967, needs a chunk of money to build a school rather than a program aimed at reducing class sizes with existing space.
"If the plan isn't more flexible, there will be a lot of districts out of the picture," Thompson said. "It would be like 10 people going to the doctor, and he only prescribes them cough medicine."
Many questions have yet to be settled. One issue, for instance, is how the state will verify that districts are using the money appropriately. State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, for instance, said districts should not reduce the size of primary-grade classrooms by overloading classes in the upper grades.
The initiative to reduce class sizes also could create a Catch-22 for many overcrowded districts that have been standing in line for years to receive money to build new campuses. Current rules require schools to have between 28 and 32 students in every classroom to be eligible for construction funds. Lowering some classes to 20 students could knock districts off the eligibility list for the scarce construction dollars.
Yet another concern is whether the reform initiative would discourage districts that have engaged in other innovative classroom practices, such as team teaching. In the Lodi School District in Northern California, officials have successfully lowered the teacher-student ratio by putting two fully credentialed teachers into classrooms that have more than 30 students. It is not clear if that would qualify as class-size reduction under the new plan.
"We're trying to encourage the Legislature to be flexible about how they word these things because there are so many different situations that schools are in," said Susie Lange of the state Department of Education.
The plan would take effect immediately, making schools eligible for the windfall in September if they can begin the year with smaller classes. That timeline is a formidable obstacle for many districts.
In Ventura County, administrators said they lack space to create new classes, cannot afford to build or rent new ones, and do not know where they would find the money to pay the portion of new teachers' salaries not covered by the state plan.
Consultants have informed districts that new portable classrooms could not be delivered until winter, even if orders were received today, officials said.
"It's a wonderful idea, and we don't want to throw a wet blanket on it. It's just a question of how can we implement it," said Howard Hamilton, the associate superintendent in Camarillo's 14-school elementary district. "This plan would take 42 new classrooms, but we have only two extra right now."
Still, local districts say they have begun to consider a variety of alternatives to stretch existing space--including year-round schedules, split shifts, classroom partitions, team teaching and petitioning the Legislature to allow districts to use the new money to place more teachers and aides in existing classrooms.
The Capistrano Unified School District, anticipating the windfall, allocated matching funds in June and made plans to hire about 100 teachers by September.
"We're really pleased to see this proposal from Sacramento," said Jacqueline Price, a spokeswoman for the district.
But finding enough qualified teachers to staff the new classrooms will also be a challenge for the state's schools.
About 20,000 new teachers would be needed by September. Last year, however, the state fully certified only 5,000 brand-new teachers. Including substitutes and teachers who had been working with temporary credentials, the state gave permanent credentials to 13,300 instructors.
Carolyn Ellner, the dean of the School of Education at Cal State Northridge, said the lure of substantially smaller--and more manageable--class sizes could work wonders on teacher recruitment in the state.
"It might bring a huge number of people back into teaching," she said.
And those already working in classrooms jammed with students said the proposal gives them hope.
Lachlan Leaver, a Saugus Union Elementary School District teacher with 30 third-grade students, relishes the prospect of smaller classes that would allow him more one-on-one time with each child.
"I could meet the needs of the gifted and those who are struggling," he said. "It would be phenomenal."
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Amy Wallace, Daryl Kelly, Dan Morain, Tina Nguyen and special correspondent John M. Gonzales.
* BUDGET PROGRESS: Agreement was reported on most state budget issues. A26