Tuesday, July 21, 2009 | Teachers and principals at the San Diego Unified schools who benefit from small classes under a controversial program rejoiced last week after the school board voted to use stimulus money to keep the program intact.

But the school board handed down its decision with a caveat: The plan only goes through if San Diego Unified can get the blessing of the federal government, a tough thing to nail down.

That has left a question mark hanging over the small classes: Is this a legal use of the stimulus funds? Even if the plan proves to be legal, tiny classes may struggle to win fans from federal overseers eager to see other kinds of innovations.

It is one example of the confusing and sometimes clashing messages from the federal government about the stimulus money, which is meant both to save jobs and to foster innovation.

Keeping the program would allow schools to test the impacts of small classes over time. And it would provide roughly 83 jobs for teachers and stabilize staffing at the impacted schools — a major selling point as the school district scrambles to make use of an estimated 185 extra teachers whose jobs were jettisoned.

“That is innovative!” school board member John Lee Evans said last week.

“The poorest schools have been turnstiles in which teachers are just constantly passing through,” he said. Stabilizing their staffing, Evans added, is a worthwhile investment that could translate into helping students.

But smaller classes are not among the reforms that are most frequently touted by federal education czar Arne Duncan as worthy innovations, which is part of the calculus as school districts try to make their case for a second, competitive batch of stimulus dollars. Duncan frequently talks about a longer school year and attracting quality teachers to struggling schools, not class-size reduction.

“The question would be, ‘Can you really sustain that when these funds go away?’” asked Steve Winnick, senior counsel for EducationCounsel, a law and policy organization. “But that’s not a legal requirement.”

Parents charged with overseeing the federal money have also questioned the legality of giving the money out “randomly” to schools. While the selected schools all have high poverty and low achievement, there are other schools with similar numbers that were never part of the program, and would not be included now. David Page, leader of a parent committee, intends to file a legal complaint if the plan goes through. He also worries about sustaining the small classes after the money is gone.

“If you put in two-thirds of a tank of gas on the way to Arizona, you’re not getting there,” he said. “It’ll employ teachers. But it’s not going to give kids a lasting benefit.”

The proposal is to use slightly more than $7 million in stimulus dollars to continue the program, started last year by Superintendent Terry Grier, which allowed for smaller classes of 15 students for each teacher in kindergarten through 2nd grade in the selected schools. Classes in those grades normally average 20 students in size under a California law that incentivizes schools to keep classes small; budget cuts have inflated class sizes to 24 students per class this year.

Only 14 out of the original 29 elementary schools involved in the program would continue to get extra teachers to whittle down their class sizes. Besides paying their salaries, the stimulus money would also go toward training the teachers in new strategies to help students read.

Schools such as Central Elementary argue that they can prove the classes are worth the cost, saying they have seen heartening gains from the project in its first year. Scores are up among kindergarteners there. And other plans floated for using the stimulus dollars in San Diego Unified have similar shortcomings to the class size plan: Providing preschool for the whole day with credentialed teachers would not be sustainable either. Others say pulling the classes is just too disruptive.

“We have worked hard to set up a school that people want to stay at,” said Cindy Robinson, a kindergarten teacher at Central Elementary, which stands to lose roughly a quarter of its teachers if the smaller classes don’t survive. “It’s like, ‘Oh, great. Square one again.’”

Long before stimulus dollars were involved, the program was a target of the teachers union, which argued that a program that helped just a handful of schools wasn’t fair to all the other schools with similar challenges. And it was one of the first programs cut by the school board during budget cuts, saving an estimated $8.1 million.

When staffers floated the idea of saving it with the stimulus money, they cautioned that it might not pass muster with the federal government. “This is a violation in terms of supplanting and supplementing regulations,” Brenda Campbell, who oversees federal programs, told the school board last week.

Campbell was referring to a rule that bars schools from using specialized funding, such as the federal stimulus dollars meant to benefit poor children, to cover expenses they would otherwise cover out of their general funds. The money is meant to add extra programs for children, not replace existing ones.

But the line between a new program and an existing one changes when schools cancel programs, which is what happened with this one. If a school district can show that the program would have been eliminated otherwise, they can make a good case that spending federal money on it does not violate the law, Simering said.

Still, the school board is reluctant to risk running afoul of the rules, especially since it has already been picked as one of six school districts across the country that will be audited on their use of stimulus dollars.

School board member John de Beck said San Diego Unified should be able to decide what is best for San Diego Unified, whether or not it is favored by the feds. Innovation means taking a risk — and de Beck believes that the small classes are a worthwhile risk that could help both kids and the bottom line.

“My take on this is, leave us alone, and if we don’t spend it right, just don’t give us any more money,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this story attributed a statement to John de Beck that should’ve been attributed to John Lee Evans. We regret the error.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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