As schools around the state opened for business this fall, many families were in for an unpleasant surprise. Early elementary classes in many school districts swelled to levels not seen in more than a decade.
At Oliveira Elementary School, in a quiet residential neighborhood in the Bay Area city of Fremont, kindergarten teacher Cheryl Accurso faces 30 kids each day, many of them just four years old.
"My biggest worry is that I'm not touching every child each day," said Accurso. "There are days when some kids walk out I think: Did I work with that child today? Whereas when I had 20 in my classroom, I knew that each and every day I was doing something that would benefit every child."
The last time time Accurso encountered a class this large was as a student teacher more than a decade ago. That's when California launched an ambitious project to cut the number of students in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms to 20 students. Back then the curriculum was light, focusing more on social skills than academics.
"Nowadays they have to learn all that and how to read words, write sentences, how to count. So the standards have changed dramatically," said Accurso.
Those standards demand more individual attention. While Oliveira's kindergarten classes are doubling up on teachers for a part of the day to relieve pressure, but Accurso says it's still hard to manage 30 young students.
"And that worries us. We're just worried that we won't be able to get them where they need to be by the end of the year."
The move away from smaller classes isn't unique to Oliveira Elementary. A look at the state's 30 largest elementary school districts revealed that class sizes in the early grades have shot up to at least 24 in many areas, like Los Angeles and San Diego. Schools in other places such as Orange County, Fremont and San Jose have pushed classes to 30.
Don Iglesias, superintendent of public schools in San Jose, said, "This is not a choice that anybody is making because we think increasing class size is a wonderful thing for our schools. It's a choice because there's ineptitude in terms of our elected officials in Sacramento and their unwillingness to raise taxes or cut programs accordingly."
Jack O'Connell, California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, said it wasn't supposed to be this way. As a state senator in the 1990s, he helped write California's class-size-reduction program. It's been expensive -- topping 22 billion dollars so far. But O'Connell says it's no accident that elementary school students have scored significant academic gains since then.
"Now I think that's going to be in jeopardy because we have so many school districts walking away from class-size reduction," said O'Connell.
O'Connell and other education officials blame multi-billion dollar budget cuts in Sacramento. Legislative leaders say they're doing everything they can. And they point out that class-size reduction was one of the few education programs spared the budget axe this year.
"We wanted to make sure that class-size reduction, to the degree that we could, was protected because we believe that having smaller classrooms particularly in our earlier years is critically important to create the right conditions for teaching and learning," explained Julia Brownley, chair of the state assembly education committee.
But even though the state is continuing to pay out nearly $1.8 billion, those subsidies aren't enough to cover the full cost of the class-size-reduction program. This year the legislature tried to help schools by loosening penalties and giving more flexibility in how that money's spent. But the result has been chaotic: schools whose classes have grown to 30 students or more are still getting around 50 percent of the subsidy. The man who initiated the push for smaller classes, former governor Pete Wilson, said the new rules defeat the original aim of the initiative.
"I would be much inclined to hold to the original program, to give the money to those who are willing to make the effort and who are going to spend the money for the purpose for which the program was intended," Wilson said.
But some education researchers question whether California's program to reduce class sizes was worth the huge price tag.
"We sit here 13 years later and 20 billion or more expended, and we can't tell the effects that money had," said Dominic Brewer, a USC professor and education expert. Brewer said it's difficult to assess whether or not the money for class-size reduction was well spent because California never bothered setting up a system to closely evaluate the program. What's more, Brewer said the way the state implemented the reform fell short of successful strategies used in other states.
"The policy set the class size at 20-to-1 when most of the evidence on the effectiveness of class-size reduction is that the real benefits kick in at class sizes of 13, 17-to-1," Brewer said. "So 20 didn't make a lot of sense."
California's return to large classes in the early grades leaves many families angry and worried.
Carole Bornarth, president of Oliveira elementary school's PTA, says she thought about moving to another state. "Because I can't afford a private school and I thought it's such a mess, the California schools are not being given the money they need and now the kids are going to be short-changed even more," said Bornath.
But Bornarth stayed put and has banded together with other parents to help the school. On a recent Saturday, she joined a group of parents, teachers and kids to spend the day gardening, cleaning out classrooms and preparing for a fall festival.
"I think that it is the crisis that has motivated people to say, 'I can't sit back and wait for things to happen,'" explained Bornarth.
San Jose's Don Iglesias agrees that the education crisis has brought parents, teachers and administrators closer together. He says that kind of support will be essential as the crisis deepens.
"Schools that are hoping for a miracle from Sacramento -- it's not coming. A year from now, two years from now, you'll see classes close to 30 in every school district," said Iglesias.
And with the state now facing a widening deficit, the goal of small classes may be elusive.
[This story was produced with Louis Freedberg and Hugo Cabrera in partnership with California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.]