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CSR Fact Sheet #1: Class Size Reduction in California

The Legislation

  • Passed in July 1996 (SB 1777); accompanied by a reading initiative. Purpose: to improve student achievement in the primary grades.
  • Initial investment of $1 billion, followed by annual investments of approximately $1.5 billion. Thought to be the largest state education reform in U.S. history.
  • Offered schools $650 per student (later raised to $800) for every K-3 student in a class of 20 or fewer
  • Required that schools lower 1st grade first, then 2nd, then 3rd and/or kindergarten.

Prompting Factors

  • Poor reading scores. NAEP testing results released in 1995 showed California’s 4th grade reading scores in second-last place among 40 participating states and jurisdictions.
  • Bulging classrooms. A task force attributed part of the blame to class sizes that averaged among the highest in the nation.
  • Promising research on CSR’s effects. Tennessee’s Project STAR (see flip side) concluded that CSR has a positive effect on student achievement, particularly for poor and minority students.
  • Shift from recession to economic boom. The end of the recession in California resulted in a surge in state revenues. State law required that the schools receive a large proportion of that gain. The decision to earmark the funds for CSR was partly research-based, partly political.

Implementation Issues

  • Rapid pace. In the first year (1996-97) 90% of 1st grade students were in reduced classes. By the second year, the program included almost all 1st and 2nd graders and y two thirds of 3rd grade and kindergarten students.
  • Teaching supply and quality squeeze. Prompted hiring of 23,500 teachers in two years; 13,300 had less than three years’ experience; portion of all K-3 teachers on emergency permits (lacked preparation/credential) rose to 12.5%.
  • Facility problems. Not enough classroom space for number of 20:1 classes created. Schools took space from special education, child care centers, music/arts programs, computer labs, and libraries and/or purchased portable classrooms.
  • Equity concerns. Per-student funding is same for all, though most-crowded districts incurred higher costs and had to dig into own coffers. Urbans struggle hardest to find qualified teachers and classroom space. Concerns that students who stand to benefit most-poor and minority children-may be least likely to get the opportunity.