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  • Policy from the Hip:Class-Size Reduction in California
  • Peter Schrag

California was, and remains, the largest "experiment" in class-size reduction (CSR) in the country's history. Its sweeping program to reduce the state's classes in kindergarten through the third grade covered nearly 2 million students and dropped the average class size from almost twenty-nine students per class, and often a great many more, to twenty or fewer, and it sought to do so virtually overnight. It is a fascinating and instructive story: Did CSR improve student achievement or realize other gains commensurate with the sizable investment it required? Could far more impressive gains have been made if the program had been concentrated on disadvantaged and other at-risk students? But the California story—much of it a political story—also raises deeper questions about the relationship of research to public policy. If the profession, parents, and the public—and thus politicians—embrace a policy, as they have in California, despite the lack of persuasive research support, what is the role of formal research? Is there a reliable way to calculate opportunity costs, as in higher pay for teachers? Conversely, can certain policies generate gains—in teacher morale, for example, or in greater voter support for public education—that may be equally important, despite the near-impossibility of calculating the effects of many of them?

In 1990, when he first ran for governor, Pete Wilson, a moderate Republican, made it known that reducing class sizes in California, which then had the largest classes in the country, was something the state could not afford. More important, in the five succeeding years, Governor Wilson and his administration [End Page 229] estimated that reducing all classes by an average of even one student (in 1995) would cost somewhere around $1 billion a year. "We've got to be a little honest about these things," Wilson said during the campaign, "and not simply generalize and say we're going to cure the problem and increase the quality of education by throwing money at it that we don't have." He felt that it was a foolish way to spend taxpayer money.1

In fact, California's schools had not been getting all that much taxpayer money or much public attention. In the early 1970s, two state supreme court decisions, Serrano v. Priest, seeking to equalize per-pupil spending between rich and poor districts, led the state to cap additional local spending in high-wealth districts, effectively decoupling local property tax rates from local school budgets and thus reducing the incentive for affluent districts to raise their own taxes to support schools. With the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which rolled back local property taxes and enacted subsequent tax limitations, funding for schools was reduced further.2 Thus per-pupil spending in California, once among the high spenders (California's per-pupil spending was fifth among the states in the late 1960s), declined to well below the U.S. average when Wilson took office in 1991 and sank even lower—to forty-first or forty-second, depending on the year and method of computation—during the recession immediately following; it has been stuck below the national average ever since. Nonetheless, because California is a high-cost state and because the California Teachers Association (CTA) has immense bargaining power, teacher salaries have remained among the highest in the country. This has raised class size even further, exacerbated California's already serious shortage of school counselors, librarians, and nurses, and led to additional cuts in programs.3

Equally important, much of California's education policy had been in turmoil for a decade before Wilson's tenure. The state had no testing program; the California Assessment Program (CAP)—the prior system—was itself of questionable reliability and had been defunded by Wilson's predecessor, George Deukmejian, in a battle over money with the independently elected state superintendent of public instruction, Bill Honig. Subsequently, Honig, who had worked hard to upgrade the state's academic standards, was convicted on conflict-of-interest charges and forced to resign. He was replaced by a temporary appointee who had been his deputy—two Wilson nominees were blocked by...


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pp. 229-243
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Archived 2007
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