Home » Eve Pearlman

Eve Pearlman: Class size reduction on the chopping block

Submitted by on 1, January 29, 2010 – 6:00 am3 Comments
Photo by Jan Watten

Photo by Jan Watten

The number of students in most public school classrooms in California (at least in kindergarten through third grade) has been locked in at a maximum of 20 children per class since 1996, when Gov. Pete Wilson launched the popular ‘class size reduction’ program. (Though even with this program, California has ranked 48th among states in on-campus adult-to-student ratios.)

But in these crap economic times for public institutions, a November survey by California Watch found that as financial incentives from the state to support small class size have been whittled away,  two-thirds of California’s 30 largest school districts have boosted per-class numbers.

In our neck of the woods, according to Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan, 40 percent of the county’s districts have raised class sizes. Fremont and Hayward have gone up to 30 children in each of their K-3 classrooms. Pleasanton raised the size of their K-3 classes to 25 this year, and proposes an increase to 30 in the next. “One reason that places like Oakland and Berkeley and Piedmont and Albany have been able to stay steady (in terms of class size) is because of their local taxes,” Jordan told KQED recently.  (We forgive Jordan for not mentioning Alameda – though we have two local school parcel taxes here, both set to expire in 2012.)

I know, I know, you had 35 kids in your grade school classes and everyone did just fine. And the Catholic school around the corner has 30 or more kids per teacher and it works out. But private schools do not have to educate every child that comes through their doors – in fact, they have policies and procedures for keeping out difficult and demanding children. Students who disrupt the flow of learning are asked to leave. And where do the children kicked out of private schools go? The public school mandate is to serve all children, whether super-bright and eager or academically struggling and behaviorally disruptive.

Public schools are required by law to provide all the things that children who struggle with learning need in order to grow and develop  – even if that means a one-on-one aide to support a child with autism or a speech therapist for a child with a learning disability. These services cost money. And unlike private schools, public schools cannot say no can do.

Remember also that public schools look very different than they did when you and I were younger. No Child Left Behind requires that all children achieve mandated levels of proficiency or the school they attend faces sanction and reorganization. There is no latitude for children hitting milestones at different times, despite the fact that, of course, they do.

In Alameda, teachers and the school district are in contract negotiations. “The district is looking for flexibility, and class size is one of the ways we’re looking to get it,” said Patricia Sanders, head of the local teacher’s union. “And really it’s because of the financial crisis that the state has created for us.”

The overall budget outlook is decidedly grim. “We are in the process of doing our second interim budget and our deficit hole is getting bigger,” Alameda Superintendent Kirsten Vital wrote in an e-mail. “Next year – almost $2.6 million, the year after $11.5 (million) and after that when we lose our parcel taxes – it is frightening.”

“In these difficult budget times,” Vital continued. “We may need to raise class size to meet some of our fiscal obligations as the state continues to reduce our funding.”

It makes no sense to knee-jerk blame ‘administration’ or ‘the teachers’ or ‘government waste,’ because we’re talking about a systemic disaster. “The real problem is that we’ve bankrupted and starved the whole system for decades now,” Norton Grubb of UC Berkeley’s School of Education told KQED. “California is a failed state and it has eroded schools over 30 years. It’s been a long process and there’s a lot of blame to go around.”

There are no guarantees. Just because our society has prospered doesn’t mean that it will continue to do so. And just because we assume that the public schools will continue to function reasonably well no matter what we do doesn’t mean that they actually will. Shortsightedness and selfishness can destroy the system. To educate our young people properly is not altruistic; it is essential. Education creates our standard of living, our quality of life, our safety – in fact, everything that we hold dear depends on the education we offer children. There are some groups out there working for systemic change – because, right now, the ability to raise funds for education at both the state and local level is severely hamstrung. I’ll talk about these and other solutions more in the coming weeks.

A note: In the “I love Alameda” category and cheering me amidst the bleak school budget prospects goes a thanks to Beth, who found an important item of mine on the sidewalk and sent it back to me in the mail. Thank you Beth!

Eve Pearlman offers her take on Alameda’s stories, big and small, every Friday on The Island. Contact her at eve@theislandofalameda.com.


  • Barbara Thomas says:

    One of the major flaws in school funding is the inequality of ADA amounts even within Counties. The anachronistic mechanism to determine ADA respected tax transfers from the federal government and included them in the computation. Districts that were newer were paying for more facitilies. That skewed their numbers higher for the ultimate equation. After federal facilities closed, our elected officials claimed to have schools as their highest priorities. But still no change. Even when we had Sen President Perata, and Ass. Maj. Whip Wilma Chan as our representatives, they did not obtain an equalization of the ADA per student throughout the County. This is consistent throughout the state. That is a basic beginning point and must be changed. Until that is done, everything is is just a poor bandaid. We can seek parcel taxes and sales taxes and every other tax, but until the fundamental amount from the state is equal per child, we are just throwing pennies and nickels at problems that are in huge dollar amounts.

  • Barbara M says:

    I will not argue that the real problems that need fixed are in Sacramento but until then do we just not educate children? It sounds easy to say “they just need to fix it at the State level”, but if we win then another district has to loose which means you are never going to get the support for the vote from elected officials in those areas. The system is broken so beyond that but what we loose if we do nothing is hope for the future and doing right by our littlest citizens. Certainly no one can say there is no waste in the education system but I would challenge anyone who can find me a government program that does more with little than most districts, certainly Alameda.

    Eve brings up some great points about our district serving all types of children but what kind of world will your grandchildren live in if we only educate those who can afford private school or kids that fit an easy to educate (cheaper to educate) formula? What would welfare and unemployment taxes look like if half the population can’t read? Oh we already have that, it is called the prison system, slightly more costly per pupil that K-12.

  • Susan Davis says:

    Barbara (T), I agree with you that the inequitable funding structure is a big issue for AUSD. But in the midst of the state’s current economic crisis, I sort of doubt anyone in Sacramento is going to be motivated to do much about it. And, as Barbara (M) notes, “if we win, then another district has to lose,” which would doom our attempts, politically.

    But even if we did miraculously get equal funding in the next nine months, the district would still be in the same boat as dozens of other districts in the state — that is, reeling from the current and projected disastrous cuts to education funding. At this point, I don’t think a parcel tax is just a “band-aid”; it’s more like a safety net that’s going to keep AUSD (and those other districts that can pass them) from going under completely.

    (Also, just as a general note, the district can’t use sales taxes to raise revenue — only parcel taxes.)

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