Thousands of Texas public schoolchildren are in more crowded classes this year as districts claim financial hardship following state budget cuts.
The number of elementary school classrooms exceeding the state’s class size cap has more than doubled since last year.
“It’s a huge issue,” said Linda Bridges, president of the American Federation of Teachers chapter in Texas. “This is an issue that not only teachers care about, but parents care about.”
School districts are reporting to the Texas Education Agency that they have broken the cap in more than 6,000 classes this fall – up from 2,238 classes last year, according to the TEA and local officials.
State law limits classes in kindergarten through fourth grade to 22 students per teacher. But districts can seek waivers from the TEA if they’ve gone over the cap for certain reasons, including an unanticipated growth in students or a shortage of space.
The TEA nearly always grants the waivers, and this year state Education Commissioner Robert Scott expanded the reasons districts could use to include “financial hardship.”
The new category was the most cited by districts, said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
Districts faced unprecedented budget cuts this year, with state lawmakers allocating $2 billion less than schools historically would have received.
The number of waivers sought by Houston-area districts has grown dramatically.
For example, the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District reports that it has exceeded the size limit this fall in 15 percent of its elementary classes. But it has capped the classes at 25 students, said Cy-Fair ISD’s general counsel, Marney Collins Sims. The district is requesting 294 waivers, up from nine last year.
Fort Bend ISD’s waivers skyrocketed to 238, with classes generally at 24 students. Last year the district had 22 waivers.
“Due to the reduction by the state in our budget, we could not hire teachers to the same degree we did last year,” said Fort Bend ISD Assistant Superintendent Marc Smith.
Houston ISD, the largest district in the state, typically has the most waivers, and the number jumped to 1,048 classrooms exceeding the cap this fall – up from 693 last year. Roughly a quarter of the district’s elementary classes top the limit this year.
“My concern is, we had a pretty large increase from the year before,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said.
Expert opinions mixed
One extra student in a class might not be a problem, Grier said, but he is asking for more information from principals.
When Grier was superintendent in San Diego, he launched an experiment that lowered classes to about 17 students in the lowest grades and kept the children together in subsequent years. The study didn’t continue after he left, but the principal of one school, Central Elementary in City Heights, believes so strongly in the benefits of smaller classes that she’s continued the project.
Teachers generally support smaller classes, saying students get more individual attention, but research into the impact on academic achievement is mixed. An oft-cited study in Tennessee found significant improvement in test scores, but the classes were particularly small, with 13 to 17 students.
“The experts truly don’t agree,” said Kathy Christie, chief of staff at the nonprofit Education Commission of the States.
Texas, like most states, does not cap the size of middle and high school classes, and elementary classes that get waivers have no limits.
Lawmaker not worried
Districts don’t have to report to the TEA how many more students are in each class, so the waivers could be for one extra child or multiple children.
“It’s really what the community will stand for and the physical size of the classroom,” said the TEA’s Ratcliffe.
Rob Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he suspects that most of the classes are increasing by only one or two students, so he’s not worried.
“The key is, let’s see what the results are,” Eissler said, noting that he wants to see student test data after this year.
Texas’ class size law has been in place since 1984. State lawmakers debated loosening the rules this year amid the budget woes but the measure failed.
Kelly Mooney, the principal of North Pointe Elementary in Clear Creek ISD, said this is the first time in her three years on the job that she’s had any classes exceed the 22-student limit. She requested waivers for all of her first-grade classes, which each have 23 or 24 students.
“My teachers are committed to building the relationships with their students, and they feel they are well trained and can compensate,” Mooney said. “At this point, since there is not a limitless fund, we definitely are making do.”