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A New Boost for Smaller Classes

School superintendents trying to take advantage of the state’s new financial bonus program for reduced class sizes in the primary grades may get more help from Sacramento. At the urging of Gov. Pete Wilson, the State Allocation Board has designated an additional $95 million for portable classrooms. Crowded urban and suburban districts can use every square foot of extra classroom space to meet the challenge.

The new funds would come from a $3-billion general obligation school bond, Proposition 203, the Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 1996, which voters approved in June. Although the ballot measure did not specifically authorize funds for portable classrooms, Wilson’s office believes the funds can be diverted to the emergency portable classroom program.

Some advocates believe those dollars would be better spent on new schools to accommodate California’s soaring enrollments. More than 5.8 million children attend public school, and their numbers are expected to grow more than 600,000 over the next five years and more than 1 million over a decade. The school districts need to start building now.

The additional portable classrooms would be a quick fix, providing extra space on existing campuses. The class-size reduction program aims to increase reading and math scores through lower student-teacher ratio. Under this bonus program, principals need to reduce class size to 20 students in the first grade in order to earn a $650-per-child bonus from the state. That’s an incentive that no California district can afford to ignore.

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So far, no formula has been devised to distribute the new $95-million allotment, but emergency funds are generally handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Before a single dollar is disbursed, state officials need a better idea of what school districts need. They can obtain that information after Oct. 1, the deadline by which school districts must apply to share in the $200-million initial pot of money earmarked for portables intended to reduce class size.

Gov. Wilson deserves credit for pressing this reform, which will help all of California’s schoolchildren, and ultimately their state as well.


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