"The law allows school districts to get a state waiver if they can't find enough teachers or have insufficient classroom space. The state rarely turns down waivers, and last year 145 districts received waivers that allowed larger classes at 548 elementary schools. The Dallas school district had waivers at 31 campuses."I monitored the Senate bill last session and much of what's mentioned in this article was discussed during the hearing. I am interested to see how this plays out this session and if the budget pressures cause opinions to change at all.
By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
December 29, 2010
AUSTIN – A quarter-century-old law that has held most elementary school classes in Texas to no more than 22 students is on the endangered list as the Legislature looks for solutions to the state's massive budget deficit.
Legislative leaders and Comptroller Susan Combs are moving to ease the requirement, arguing that it will save hundreds of millions of dollars while giving school districts more flexibility in educating their students.
Teacher groups – backed by Democrats in the House and Senate – vow to fight to any change, contending it will reverse academic gains in elementary schools and force the elimination of up to 12,000 teaching jobs in Texas.
The issue promises to be one of the most volatile of the session that begins next month, largely because the requirement has been on the books since 1984, when Dallas businessman Ross Perot spearheaded a school-reform movement in Texas.
Combs, a Republican, renewed attention on the issue recently after recommending that lawmakers scrap the 22-student limit in kindergarten through fourth grade and switch to an average class-size standard of 22.
In practical terms, that means an extra three students per class on average in those five grades. The current average with the 22-pupil limit is 19.3 students per class, according to figures gathered by the comptroller's office.
Combs, noting that many school superintendents support the idea, said the change would save an estimated $558 million a year – primarily through elimination of thousands of teaching jobs.
'This will not hurt'
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, a leading advocate of revising the class-size limit, said it is costing school districts and the state "millions and millions of dollars" annually without any evidence that it is boosting achievement.
"The 22-student limit was just a number pulled out of thin air. What we want to do is simply give flexibility and freedom to teachers, principals and superintendents to do what is best for students in their district," said Patrick, who tried to put an "average" class-size standard into state law two years ago.
"This will not hurt the education of our students," he insisted, noting there are no class-size caps in upper grade levels in Texas.
But Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, contended that the class-size limit has been a big factor in the academic successes that Texas has seen in the early elementary grades.
"When we put 22-to-1 in the law, there was a reason for doing it. There were a lot of studies showing that smaller classes were important for student achievement, especially in the elementary grades," he said.
"I understand we will be dealing with a budget shortfall, but we can't afford to do things that will reverse the progress we've made in our schools. Someone will have to show me research-based studies that demonstrate it [removing the cap] won't have a negative impact on student achievement."
While some national studies have been focused on the advantages of smaller classes, there is no recent research on how effective Texas' 22-student limit is in promoting academic success.
In 2000, a study by the Rand Corp. praised Texas for its progress with elementary school children, citing smaller classes as a key factor in improved scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"States at the top of the heap generally have lower pupil-teacher ratios in lower grades," said the study, noting that Texas children outscored their counterparts in California largely because of smaller classes.
In addition, a 1999 report from the Texas Education Agency said that research across the country indicated that class-size restrictions have the greatest impact on student achievement when classes are less than 20 students, especially for economically disadvantaged and minority students.
The class-size standard has been in place since the Legislature approved a landmark school reform law in 1984. Among the highlights and other results:
•The law included the no-pass, no-play rule, pre-kindergarten for low-income children, and the state's high school graduation test. It was passed under the leadership of Perot and former Democratic Gov. Mark White.
•There is no doubt the 22-pupil limit is costly because every time a class in the five affected grade levels hits 23 or more students, a new class must be created with an additional teacher and classroom. One superintendent from the Houston area said each new class costs his district $100,000 to $150,000.
•The law allows school districts to get a state waiver if they can't find enough teachers or have insufficient classroom space. The state rarely turns down waivers, and last year 145 districts received waivers that allowed larger classes at 548 elementary schools. The Dallas school district had waivers at 31 campuses.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said superintendents across the state "have asked that we relieve them of state mandates that are very expensive," knowing that lawmakers will be looking for places to save money next year.
For now, Shapiro said she agrees with Combs' recommendation to shift to a class-size average in the elementary grades rather than have a strict limit on the number of students per class.
"It would give flexibility to superintendents. It strengthens local control and gives them the opportunity to save some dollars," she said, noting that school officials could decide to keep some classes at 15 students and others at 22 or 25.
Both Shapiro and House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said that the quality of the teacher is more important than the number of students in the classroom.
"Effective teachers are more important than class size," Eissler said. "We need to find more efficient ways to run our schools, pay our best teachers better and give more of our kids exposure to our best teachers."
Teacher leaders countered that the 22-pupil limit has been critical to achievement gains for elementary school students over the last two decades and now is not the time to weaken or water down the standard.
Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association said the class-size cap has been one of the most popular requirements in the schools for years.
Adopting the comptroller's recommendation to eliminate the cap "will put a lot of teachers out of work and put a lot of kids in bigger classes," he said. "Is that what Texas parents really want?"
Linda Bridges, president of the Texas chapter of American Federation of Teachers, said the proposed change in the law represents "a giant leap backwards" in efforts to improve student achievement.
She also called "absurd" Combs' assertion that 25 students in a class won't have any adverse effect on learning.
"The comptroller has managed to ignore decades of scholarly research and what parents and teachers know intuitively – that smaller classes are better for children, especially in the early grades."