We’ve discussed the looming cuts to public education, in which the focus of the battle will be class size limits, which are currently mandated at 22 students per classroom. That was part of the sweeping 1984 overhaul of the education code that was spurred by Ross Perot, which included the no-pass no-play law. Research since then has shown a benefit to students resulting from the lower student/teacher ratios, though much of that research is now several years old.
Maintaining these class size limits is expensive, however, so as this DMN story reminds us, it’s a natural place for legislators to look to for cost savings. And it makes me wonder about something.
[Comptroller Susan] 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.
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.
Whether or not we think 22 is a magic number for class size limits – Rep. Rob Eissler has said that you don’t really see a benefit from smaller class sizes until you get considerably under 22 per class – there is broad agreement that student performance benefited from the 1984 reforms. I have yet to see any claims about what the effect of larger class sizes might mean, but it seems to me that with all the waivers that have been granted in recent years, there ought to be enough data to allow us to draw some conclusions. Why not commission a study to compare the districts that have received waivers to similar districts that have not, and see what it tells us? And if such a study has already been done, please show it to us. Why fly blind when we don’t have to?
Which leads to a second question. Given that we don’t necessarily know what the effect of undoing the 22:1 ratio will be, and given that school districts have been able to get waivers to that whenever they’ve needed to, why make a permanent change? Why not just suspend the rules related to getting waivers for two years, and let the school districts work it out as best they can? Because otherwise it sure looks to me like the goal here is to force school districts to fire a bunch of teachers – for which superintendents and school board members will be blamed, not the Lege – while using the discussion of the class size limit as a distraction. If the Republican intent is to increase unemployment, the least they can do is be honest about it.