Outlook 2010: Funding crunch could lead to larger class sizes

For school districts, the largest expense is personnel. The quickest way to reduce costs is to hire fewer employees. Fewer teachers mean more students in each classroom.

Studies have linked improved student achievement to smaller class sizes, and over the years, many states and districts have responded to that research by placing caps on class size, especially in primary grades. But economic conditions are making it more difficult for districts to maintain the desired class sizes, and schools risk losing whatever gains that have been made in academic performance.

Some districts and states are holding off other budget reductions by raising the numbers of students allowed in each class. In the nation's largest state, a survey of the 30 largest California school systems found that many districts were increasing class size even after receiving funding intended to keep class sizes smaller.

California Watch, an initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that in the Capistrano Unified School District, second- and third-grade classes have grown to an average of 30.5 students. In the Los Angeles Unified District, K-3 class sizes have risen to 24 in many schools.

In the nation's largest school system, New York City, class sizes also have risen. The city's education department reported preliminary 2009-10 numbers that showed larger class sizes at all grade levels. One-third of schools experienced an increase in class size of less than 5 percent; one-third of schools experienced an increase in class size greater than 5 percent; and one-third experienced a decrease in class size. The average kindergarten class is at 21.7 students, compared with 20.7 the year before.

Education officials say that because administrators were urged to minimize the cuts made to instructional programs, it was able to keep class sizes from climbing higher for 2009-10. However, "continued decline in fiscal resources will significantly reduce the capacity of schools to meet annual class size targets in the future," the department says.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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