Three years after Texas public schools were slammed with big funding cuts, hundreds of elementary campuses in North Texas and across the state are still struggling to comply with class size limits aimed at boosting student achievement.
Source: Dallas News
Posted by: Terrence Stutz
Date: July 2, 2014
State officials counter arguments in the current lawsuit brought by more than 600 districts by saying that adequate funding levels for schools have been restored. But the huge number of elementary schools with oversized classes in the just-finished school year tells a different story.
The Texas Education Agency excused 1,272 elementary schools from the 22-pupil limit in kindergarten through fourth grade. Most cited “financial hardship” or “unanticipated growth” in their requests for waivers.
That’s a slight improvement from the previous year, when 1,480 schools were exempted. But it’s nearly 30 percent of the elementary schools in the state. It is also more than 21/2 times the number of campuses that received waivers in 2010-11, the last school year before the Legislature dramatically reduced per-pupil funding in an effort to close a huge budget shortfall without raising taxes.
The Dallas school district received class size waivers for 72 elementary campuses. Another 16 districts in the area also received exemptions.
In seeking the waivers, Dallas school officials cited the large funding cuts from 2011. The Legislature restored some of the money starting with the current budget year, but per-pupil funding in Dallas is still less than it was in the 2010-11 school year.
Statewide, 5,870 classes were allowed to have more than 22 students in the 2013-14 school year. That means about 130,000 children were taught in oversized classes.
Former state Education Commissioner Robert Scott first authorized the financial exemption three years ago in the wake of the funding cuts. It was supposed to be a temporary solution, but “financial hardship is still an acceptable reason for a school district to request a waiver,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the education agency.
Ratcliffe also said several districts in West Texas requested exemptions for “unanticipated growth” because of the influx of new families attracted by the oil and gas exploration boom in the area. That has caused crowding at many schools.
In the past three years, most school districts boosted class sizes across all grade levels, but they are not required to get permission from the state to put more students in classes in grades 5 through 12.
One study by the Texas Association of School Business Officials indicated that the average class across all grade levels increased from 14.7 to 15.5 pupils between 2011 and 2013.
While the number of elementary class size waivers this year was among the highest ever recorded, it was still down from the past two years, which came on the heels of the two-year $5.4 billion funding reduction approved in the 2011 legislative session. Lawmakers restored $3.4 billion in 2013, which most districts complained was not enough to help them keep up with the state’s population growth.
The education agency doesn’t require any follow-up report on classrooms allowed to break the cap.
The impact of the cuts on class size was not lost on state District Judge John Dietz, who is expected to rule against the state in the school finance case later this summer.
Among those who testified during the trial before Dietz was Richardson school Superintendent Kay Waggoner. She described how the funding cutbacks forced her district to increase class sizes in nearly 300 elementary classrooms at 39 schools in the 2012-13 school year. That number was scaled back to nine schools this past year when the district shifted funds and added more teachers.
“For every student you add, it becomes increasingly more difficult for teachers to meet the needs of students,” Waggoner told Dietz.
Dallas exceeded the cap in 209 classes last year, but that compared very favorably with the Houston school district, which had 1,183 classes with more than 22 pupils.
Teacher groups have been among the most vocal critics of increased use of class size exemptions. While they fault school superintendents for resorting to waivers too quickly, they hold the Legislature and state leaders responsible for forcing oversized classes because of diminished funding.
“The 22-to-1 law was enacted because it is good policy to have smaller classes for young children. Now it is being gutted by a legislative majority that refuses to adequately fund schools,” said Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association. “Large classes undermine the learning environment, particularly for children who need more attention from their teachers. If this trend keeps up, it will represent a de facto repeal of the class size law.”
Teachers also would like to see an end to the financial hardship option.
“It was never intended to be a permanent excuse for having larger classes,” said Texas AFT President Linda Bridges.
Origins of limit
Supporters of the elementary class size limit say it has fostered achievement gains for those students dating back to when the Legislature first required it, in a special session on education 30 years ago. That effort was led by Dallas billionaire Ross Perot, whose lobbyists helped push through a massive overhaul that also included the no-pass, no-play requirement.
A policy brief from the Southern Regional Education Board last year cited research indicating that “students in smaller classes tend to outperform their peers in larger classes, especially in kindergarten through third grade.” Another study focused on Texas schools found that smaller classes yielded academic gains for students through the fifth grade, according to the board.
Some conservative groups question whether the 22-pupil limit is as important as teachers and other educators maintain. In an analysis for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, James Golsan said there is little evidence supporting the current Texas class size restriction.
“Research indicates that in the lower grade levels, a class size limited to 13-17 students can have a positive impact in closing some achievement gaps for minority students,” Golsan said. “However, due to the size of Texas’ student population, there is no way to bring the class size cap down that far.”
AT A GLANCE: Dallas-area waivers
Dallas-area school districts that received class size waivers in 2013-14:
SOURCE: Texas Education Agency