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Class Sizes to Grow, Despite State's $1.3 Billion Program

"Students are having a lot less time with teachers"

For years, the Oakland Unified School District spent millions of dollars to open small schools and hire more teachers, giving it some of the smallest class sizes in Alameda County.

But that effort is slowly eroding as the state’s financial troubles deepen.

The district’s average class size next year could jump to 30 students for every teacher, up from 23 this year, a 30-percent increase, according to figures provided by the district.

“All of a sudden, students are having a lot less time with teachers,” said Crystal Brown, a spokeswoman for Educate Our State, a parent-led group dedicated to reforming the state’s public schools. “Even with 20 children in a classroom, it’s a really tough environment. There is no way that kids will get all their needs met.”

Class sizes in Oakland and many Bay Area school districts have been increasing for the last year and half.  And they are likely to get even bigger next year, as the state's budget crisis forces school administrators to make even deeper cuts.

The Sunnyvale School District will likely increase class sizes in grades K-3 next year from 20 to 23 students for every teacher.

The Cupertino Union School District may have to increase class sizes for grades 1 through 3 and 6 through 8 next year after sending pink slips to some 117 teachers, counselors and other staff.

“Another collateral damage of the state budget here is class size,” said Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association, which represents 325,000 members statewide. “It is a fact that class sizes have risen across the state over the last year and a half as more and more districts have used up their reserves.”

The recent shift has some wondering whether the state’s $1.3 billion-a-year class size reduction program should be recalibrated. Fifteen years ago, the state imposed a strict cap of 20 students per teacher for students in grades K-3. But in 2009, as the state budget worsened, the state relaxed class size requirements. Now school districts can still collect most of the state subsidies even if their class sizes creep up to 28 or 30 students.

“It is not meeting the original intent of the program to keep class sizes particularly low,” said Jennifer Kuhn, an education analyst at the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. “This is unhelpful. Why not just give it to districts as general purpose money.”

Officials in the 46,000-student Oakland Unified district said they would have welcomed that. Facing a $30 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending in June 2012, the district recently sent pink slips to 671 teachers, counselors and other staff. While it typically rescinds most layoff notices, at least 95 employees this year will be permanently laid off, Flint said.

Class size reduction programs in the district had indirectly benefited from $28.3 million donated by organizations such as the Gates Foundation to help support small schools and other initiatives from 2005 through 2007.

Flint said the money had not been spent in vain, however.

“I don’t see it as wasted money because it played an important role in improving the district and it allowed us to develop approaches that we can apply in various schools,” Flint said. “The one way we were perhaps shortsighted is figuring out how sustainable these programs would be once private evaporated.”

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