The Whipping Boy

How did class size limits become the symbol of an unnecessary luxury in our schools?

"You don't see successful charter schools operating with 50 kids in a class," Hochberg says.

The call to discard 22-1 is nothing especially new. "Ever since the 22-1 requirement was put in under the Perot Commission back in the early '80s, superintendents have lobbied to remove it," Hochberg says. "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."

Last legislative session, Texas Senator Dan Patrick introduced Senate Bill 300, which would have moved K-4 to the 22 average.

Former Texas governor Mark White doesn't want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education.
Chris Curry
Former Texas governor Mark White doesn't want to see the state lose the gains it has made in education.

Patrick is caught in an interesting situation in that the school district in his area, Cy-Fair ISD, has undergone some pretty dramatic change and now has about 40 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunches — and would seem to be a district whose students would benefit from smaller classes. At the same time, Patrick, who is tied to the Texas Tea Party, has dedicated himself to keeping taxes down for his constituency. Patrick declined our request for an interview.

Comptroller Combs, who is still working on her budget projections for the next biennium starting in September, has reportedly thrown out a figure of $557 million in savings that could be achieved by replacing the word "limit" with "average" — an important figure in a state that may be facing a $15 billion to $30 billion shortfall.

Not surprisingly, her proposal hasn't been embraced by teachers — larger classes mean fewer teachers.

Parent and former Bellaire High School English teacher Nancy Lomax fought hard for the education changes in 1984. She is against the call to eliminate the limits; in fact, she thinks they should be extended to other grades. "I'm not about to go quietly down this road."

She argues that the 22-1 limit is even more important now than ever, given the modern-day demographics of classrooms not just in urban districts like the Houston Independent School District, but suburban ones as well.

Her daughter is a fourth-grade teacher in the Lewisville School District near Dallas, where almost every child in the class has limited English proficiency; some are gifted while others are emotionally disturbed and special ed; and three are Burmese refugees. That's tough enough, she says. How does a teacher control an even larger class like that and really see to the needs of all the students?

In 2006, Governor Rick Perry ordered school districts to cut local property tax, saying the state would make up the difference.

"The state's new taxes to make up the difference didn't made up the difference," Hochberg says. "And so since that bill was passed in '06, we haven't had an internally balanced budget at the state level. We've been short every time. We covered it the first time because we had a surplus coming in. We covered it the second time with stimulus money — that nasty, awful stimulus money from Washington that we don't want to touch.

"We were 4 billion short on the budget last time without the stimulus money, and that's on a zero-growth budget. State revenues haven't balanced the budget for the last two cycles since those cuts were made."

HISD and other districts are already working on budgets for the next year — they have to submit them in June whether the Legislature has given them their numbers or not. All anyone knows for sure is that since education accounts for about 40 percent of the state budget, there's no way to avoid a hit. After two hours of budget talk at a recent HISD workshop, board president Greg Meyers said he wasn't sure too much clarity had been achieved.

But that's all right, says Hochberg. Just starting the discussion, and opening up to community groups for input as HISD is doing in January, is a good idea, he says, because they can't afford to wait. "They should really figure what their priorities are. I'm not sure we're going to do that at the state level."

"HISD is a billion-plus-dollar operation. If you're the school district in Canadian, Texas, and you've got 900 kids, then maybe you can wait till the last minute to figure out what you have to do. But if you're an operation the size of HISD, you would be foolhardy in terms of your own policies and unfair to your employees not to at least lay out a variety of scenarios that could occur and figure out what you're going to do about them. Because by the time you know it, it will be very difficult to turn the train."

Legislatures tend to make broad, general cuts, leaving the details (and the heat) to local school boards. School trustees need to make very clear to legislators what the exact losses will be, Hochberg says. "The legislators and the leadership in Austin should not be able to walk away from this session saying, 'Gee, I didn't know it would have this impact.'"

Hochberg knows schools waste money, and says he's ready to offer alternative savings proposals for schools — in fact, he's done so over his 18 years as a state legislator with little success.

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