By Mike Myslinski
Class size is a major topic at bargaining tables
Like many California educators, Bay Area math teacher Jan Frydendahl worries that student learning suffers when too many kids are crammed into classrooms. He is fed up with large class sizes and is fighting back through his local CTA union.
He’s a member of his union’s bargaining team in Fremont and is at a top high school where faculty are unified in their campaign for fair working and learning conditions. Even parents have joined the fight.
Frydendahl was frustrated when 35 students turned up in two math classes at the start of this year — well above his district’s contractual goal of 30 students for high schools. “I had to have desks brought into my classroom,” he recalls. “We have academic core classes with 36 or 37 students in them. We’ve been trying to get some relief for our students by filing grievances and putting pressure on the district.”
As more school districts ignore class size limits, educators are seeking remedies at the bargaining table. They need to. California’s class sizes are soaring, and federal data shows California has the most students per teacher of any state, according to National Education Association research. Also, districts strapped for cash were given the option by the state of putting funds originally earmarked for small class sizes into their general funds, paying modest penalties for the new revenue that went to other uses besides class size reduction.
The 32,000-student Fremont Unified does that, but it has about $30 million in reserves, and educators have taken 12 unpaid furlough days since 2009. The school board ignored parents who collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition last May demanding class sizes be lowered by voting to raise maximums to 30 in K-3.
So Frydendahl’s concerns grow. His school, Mission San Jose High School in Fremont Unified School District, was ranked 13th in the state and 67th in the nation among all high schools last year for academics by U.S. News and World Report. The high-achieving school’s API (Academic Performance Index) score is a stellar 951.
His colleague, English teacher John Boegman, says he can no longer do a drawing exercise when he teaches about Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 due to overcrowding. The book includes a poem to which he asks students to react by drawing on a large poster. But with 34 students in his ninth-grade class, there is no room to draw, so class time is lost while everyone troops down to the cafeteria to finish.
“Thirty-four students are way too many,” he says, recalling how state funding that used to limit his class to 20 was instead routed into the district’s general fund. “It’s not ethical for the district to do that, but it’s legal to do it.”
In contract negotiations now, the 1,600-member Fremont Unified District Teachers Association (FUDTA) hopes class size grievances — like the 54 filed last fall by FUDTA on behalf of Mission San Jose educators — will pressure the district to agree to stronger contract language on class size maximums. Other grievances had limited success. Even special education classes have increased from 12 to 17 students, says FUDTA President Brannin Dorsey.
“These are our most needy students, and they’re just packing them in there,” she says, noting that some PE classes have up to 63 kids at once. “It’s just not safe.”
The problem, Dorsey says, is one that teachers in other districts face — contract language that’s not clear enough. In Fremont, class sizes are capped at 30 for K-6 classrooms, but for middle and high schools the cap is actually only a “goal” of 30, on average. The goal is 12 for special education students.
“We are fighting for student learning conditions,” Dorsey says. “We’re just getting started and we’re not going away.”