Some Key Points in the Debate on Class-Size Caps

If class size in public schools isn’t important, “then why does every private school in America brag on ‘we have a small class size?’” That question posed by former Texas Gov. Mark White leads off one of the best articles we’ve seen lately regarding the looming attack in the state legislature on class-size limits.  (The state class-size law enacted under Gov. White in 1984 caps class size at 22 students per teacher in each classroom from kindergarten through fourth grade—subject to a waiver if a district shows financial hardship.) The article appeared in the Houston Press, and you can read it at this link:

Some key points from the article:

–The research. Rep. Scott Hochberg, the Houston Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on education funding, says the push from some school superintendents and legislators to unravel the class-size cap is “budget reduction masquerading as education reform.” Hochberg notes that some administrators and legislators are claiming a key Tennessee study shows no beneficial impact of reduced class size unless the pupil-teacher ratio is capped at 15 to one.  But “it didn’t say until you get to 15 there’s no difference,” Hochberg points out. “How you twist that into ‘There’s no difference until you get down to 15’ is pure propaganda.” (In fact, other studies, including studies of Texas schools specifically, have reinforced the evidence that reducing class size helps students—especially disadvantaged students, who make up close to 60 percent of the student population now enrolled in our state’s public schools.)

–The availability of waivers. The Houston Press article also points out that school districts can apply for waivers of the class-size cap. As the article notes, since 1993 a total of 3,085 waivers have been granted to school districts, according to the Texas Education Agency. Only five of those requests have been denied.

–Why an “average” limit won’t work. The recommendation that the state move to an “average” class size of 22 to one instead of a cap for each classroom “sounds innocuous enough,” the Houston Press says, “unless you figure out that if you match a small class (say special ed) with a larger one, that second one can get pretty big and still meet the ‘average’ requirement.” Says former Gov. White:  “The reason for 22-1, and it doesn’t use the word ‘average,’ is because of what my mother told me every day when she came home from teaching in a first-grade classroom in which the state law called for a 28-1 average. I go around and count the little shining faces in her first-grade class. Somehow or another, she has 34 kids in her class.”

–Impact on achievement. Rep. Hochberg also puts the current clamor to gut class-size caps into a historical perspective. “Ever since the 22-1 requirement was put in under the Perot Commission back in the early ’80s, superintendents have lobbied to remove it,” he observes. “It’s always the thing that gets tossed out as something that needs to be done, which is interesting, given that K-4 is where we seem to do pretty well in terms of national comparisons, international comparisons.”

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