Comptroller Mounts New Attack on Class-Size Limits in Early Elementary Grades; Teacher Evaluations, Pay, and Contract Rights Targeted, Too

The drumbeat for an attack on state class-size limits in grades K-4 that began in the Texas Senate Education Committee last February just got louder today. State Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs, in the name of “efficiency,” issued a report that recommends “eliminating the 22-student limit for each K-4 classroom and instituting an average 22-student class size instead.”

Make no mistake:  This proposal would gut the class-size cap. Classes in grades K-4 include many specialized classes with small numbers of students based on special needs (e.g., students with disabilities). Averaging these classes together with regular K-4 classes on a district-wide basis would make it simple to pack many more students into each regular classroom and still maintain the façade of a 22-student limit “on average.”  

The comptroller’s report makes extravagant claims for the potential cost savings—running into the hundreds of millions of dollars–supposedly to be reaped if this policy were enacted. But it’s apparent that the report fails to take into account a crucial fact:  namely, the fact that school districts under existing law already can easily obtain from the Texas Education Agency a waiver of the class-size cap based on a claim of financial hardship. Waiver requests almost never are refused.

An appendix to the comptroller’s report acknowledges that waivers are widespread. Perhaps unwittingly, the appendix also gets to the real issue when it states:  “Many school officials, however, find the waiver process difficult, as parents must be notified of the district’s intention to increase class sizes, and in some cases a public hearing must be held.”

In other words, some school officials don’t want to have to notify parents and community and explain why they want a waiver from class-size limits; they want to be able to increase class sizes without this sort of accountability to the parents of the children affected.

Scholarly studies have borne out what parents know intuitively—smaller classes are better for children, especially disadvantaged children, and especially in the early grades. But the comptroller’s report simply takes at face value the assertion, again attributed to “many school officials,” that “classes with up to 25 students could operate without any loss of instructional effectiveness.”

In fact, many school officials also take the opposite view, embracing the state law on class-size limits (with the flexibility already provided by the waiver provision for undue hardship) as one of the most successful education reforms ever enacted in this state. And despite the drumbeat for doing away with any meaningful class-size limit, the public sides with parents, teachers, and enlightened school administrators on this question. As an independent July 2010 Texas Poll commissioned by the Texas Association of School Boards found, Texans strongly support class-size limits. In fact, that poll found support is so strong that even in the midst of severe economic distress 71 percent of Texans actually favored paying higher taxes to lower class size.

Teacher Evaluations, Pay, Contracts Targeted, Too: The comptroller’s report also tries to make the “efficiency” argument to resurrect other bad ideas that have been rejected in past legislative sessions, involving teacher evaluation, salaries, and contract rights. Future Hotlines will provide a full report.