Back in 1984, one of the school reforms that resulted from the Perot Commission was a mandate that elementary school classes could have no more than 22 students in them. Many things have changed since then, but that standard has remained. Now it may be a casualty of the current budget crunch.
Any statewide change in the standard could translate into hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and districts. 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. Superintendent David Anthony of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district also said his district added more than 70 classes last year.
The legislative committee’s recommendations could loom large as lawmakers grapple with what is expected to be a record revenue shortfall approaching $15 billion. About 60 percent of the state’s general revenue funds are spent on education.
The leaders of the special committee – Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands – said class size standards will be scrutinized. Shapiro and Eissler also chair the education committees of their respective chambers.
“If a change seems feasible, we could try it,” said Eissler, who maintained that quality teachers are much more important than class size in improving student achievement. “The research doesn’t show any particular significance to 22 to 1. You really have to get below 18 to make a difference.”
Eissler said he understands, though, why teachers would be reluctant to see any change in the standard.
Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association said that if anything, the state should take the requirement even further by “pushing class sizes down further at campuses that are low-performing or in danger of becoming low-performing.”
Teacher groups also point out that school districts can get waivers to be exempted from the 22-to-1 limit if they claim they lack classroom space or can’t find qualified teachers for additional classes. But superintendents dislike the requirement that they must notify parents whenever they seek exemptions for larger classes and in some cases must hold a public hearing.
This school year, 144 districts received waivers from the state that allowed larger classes at 544 elementary schools. The Dallas school district had waivers at 31 campuses.
In all, nearly 1,800 classrooms – with almost 40,000 students – had more than the maximum number of pupils this year.
“The Texas Education Agency never denies waivers,” said Josh Sanderson of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, insisting that school districts don’t need to have the class size rule changed because they can get exempted from it when necessary.
There’s certainly room to argue over whether or not the 22-1 ratio is the difference-maker it was when it was first adopted. As Rep. Eissler points out, the right answer if you really want to improve classroom performance would be to reduce the teacher-student ratio even further. It’s likely the case that there are more cost-effective solutions for achieving that improvement, but that is a known solution. Allowing the ratio to be increased instead as a cost-cutting measure is just another reminder of what our priorities are as a state, and a reminder (as if we needed one) that the school finance question still hasn’t been answered. We do know how to do things more cheaply, because we’ve had a lot of practice with that. We’ll be doing it again soon. Doing things better never seems to be more than a theoretical option.