Texas Legislators Rethink Class Size Rules Amid Budget Shortfall

Published February 18, 2011

In an effort to ease financial pressures on the state budget, Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs is suggesting the legislature replace the current cap of 22 students in each K-4 classroom with a maximum average of 22 students for the entire district’s K-4 classrooms. Texas faces a combined $27 billion budget shortfall for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 which may bring on cuts to public education totaling $5 billion.

“Districts will be operating on tighter budgets in the coming years,” explained Combs. “Adhering to the proposed average would give school districts more flexibility than the current cap, allowing them to make their own decisions about how best to allocate their resources efficiently while being responsive to local preferences.”

Combs’ recommendations are drawn from a recent study, required by the 2009 Texas State Legislature, of the Lone Star State’s public school spending and its relation to student achievement.

Class-Size Mandates ‘Costly’
Combs said when she asked her advisory panel of superintendents from across the state, class size caps were commonly noted as a “costly and burdensome” state mandate.

“The problem with class size mandates is that they limit school leaders’ ability to make the best tradeoffs for students and teachers and can force diversion of funds from investing in teaching quality to just adding bodies whether or not they are highly effective or have the right skills,” said Karen Hawley Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that works with large urban school systems to transform their resource use to improve student learning.

Houston Independent School District superintendent Terry Grier agrees changing the class mandate would give local leaders more flexibility in their budgets. Grier notes some of his principals would likely take advantage of such relief.

“If HISD loses a significant amount of state funding, raising class size, if permissible by law, would be a strategy that some principals might choose to balance their school’s budget,” Grier said.

Political ‘Hot Potato’
Although popular with state leaders such as State Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), who currently chairs the state Senate education committee, the recommendation has come under fire from many educators, parents, and teachers unions.

“The issue of class size has always been a political ‘hot potato’ in many circles,” Grier explained. “Parent and teachers support lower class size, and it’s hard to argue that fewer students in a class make it easier for a teacher to manage the students in his or her classroom.”

The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers has come out in strong opposition to changing the current class-size mandates. “Lawmakers aren’t fooling anyone by pretending that class size doesn’t matter,” Texas AFT President Linda Bridges said in a statement. “It does, and it’s one of the most important education reforms passed in decades and has stood the test of time, study, and plain old common sense.”

‘No Evidence’
But Harvard University researcher Matthew Chingos says the research points the other way. Chingos last year published a study of Florida’s class-size reduction mandate. He compared schools that had yet to reduce class sizes with those that already had.

“You’d expect to find improvements in the classes that were reduced. However, I found no evidence that the small reductions made any different in student achievement,” said Chingos. “The results I found in Florida parallel the situation in Texas, because we’re only talking about small increments in class size.”

“Given that reducing classes by two or three students may not make that much of a difference, and that hundreds of millions of dollars can be saved, it seems like a reasonable thing to do,” Chingos said.

Miles’ observations agree with Chingos’ findings. In Broward County, Florida, Miles says hundreds more teachers were hired to meet class size reeducation mandates. Many of those teachers were novices.

“So the district has invested dollars to bring less qualified individuals on board rather than being able to invest in paying great teachers more to take on extra students or allowing districts to come up with other ways of ensuring individual and small group attention that is targeted to needs,” said Miles.

Jenna M. Schuette ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.

Internet Info:
Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST): http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/29369/

Matthew Chingos, “The Impact of a Universal Class-Size Reduction Policy: Evidence from Florida’s Statewide Mandate,” Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Papers Series (Harvard, 2010): http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/27786/