The Whipping Boy

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

Former Texas governor Mark White wants to know, 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?' "

Texas politicians and education administrators (note, not teachers) have upped the drumbeat in recent days, saying Texas can no longer afford its caps on class sizes, and hey, it might be better to educate students in larger classes anyway. The Senate Committee on Education is couching this in terms of "local control," its recommendation: "Modify class size limitations to allow more flexibility to school districts to meet the need of their students."

What they're more than willing to tinker with — some would say destroy — is one of the main parts of White's education legacy, the changes that went through in 1984 when the Legislature, working with the results of the Perot Commission on Education, allowed full-day kindergarten funding (although some members tried to take it back in the next regular session), no-pass, no-play and a 22-1 limit on the number of kids one teacher would have to face in a lower-grades classroom each day.

State Representative Scott Hochberg, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on education and vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee, calls the current crop of proposals "budget reduction masquerading as education reform."

As the neo-reformers would have it, creative teachers and administrators have supposedly been crippled by the 22-1 rule for 26 years now. The problems with this worldview are twofold: No. 1, the 22-1 rule only applies to grades K-4, a compromise hammered out in 1984. It doesn't even make it all the way through elementary.

And second, a school district has always been able to apply for waivers to the class size cap — and a check of Texas Education Agency records shows these are pretty freely handed out.

Starting in the 1993-94 school year to the present day, a total of 3,085 waivers have been granted to school districts, according to TEA records. Since 1992, there have been only five waiver requests denied. Not five each year. That's five total.

"If this was something you needed to free up principals to do, you would already see that happening in the grades where there's no class size limits," Hochberg says. "If they wanted that flexibility, they already have it everywhere from high school down to fifth grade."

Nevertheless, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, in her recent FAST (Financial Allocation Study for Texas) report assessing each school district in Texas for its fiscal effectiveness, recommends that the state "relax the limit of 22 students in K-4 classes to permit an average of 22 students per class."

The word "average" sounds innocuous enough 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.

Mark White grew up knowing all about these kind of averages.

"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.

White has a photo of his mother's first-grade class at Briargrove Elementary school during the late '60s, early '70s, when the law was 28-1. "I go around and count the little shining faces in her first-grade class. Somehow or another, she has 34 kids in her class. Where'd those extra six kids come from? 

"The next year she had the same number. So when all the administrators came in and said, 'Make it an average,' they averaged in the custodians and the cooks. That's the game we played."

However accurate White and Hochberg are, they are swimming against a majority tide of Republican state legislators who got into office promising to hold the line on taxes. If that means sticking a few extra kids in a classroom, so be it.

A famous education study done in Tennessee in the 1980s shows class size matters. In the four-year Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) study, kindergarten-through-third-grade classes with 13-17 students in them were compared to those with 22-26 students, and the researchers found out, in fact, that smaller meant better in terms of academic milestones. A followup study showed the effect continues for several years.

But what many administrators now like to say is that class size doesn't matter till you get down to 15, Hochberg says. So if you can't do that, you might as well throw up your hands. Which is not what the study says. The study just compared two groups and said that of these two groups, those with an average of 15 did better.

"It didn't say until you get to 15 there's no difference," Hochberg says. "How you twist that into 'There's no difference till you get down to 15' is pure propaganda."

And, as it turns out, according to the Tennessee study, smaller class sizes are especially beneficial for kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds — which describes a majority of students in HISD and, in fact, a significant portion of the student population across the Houston area.

"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.

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?
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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.

Some of his proposals: Cut back state standardized testing to every other year for the kids who pass, stop buying textbooks that sit in a teacher's closet and instead go to more electronic textbooks, have a serious look at the cost of University Interscholastic League rules that require every school to offer every significant sport, he says.

Also, why not use long-distance, virtual learning for teachers' continuing education and cut out the need for regional service centers?

"It may be easier to increase class sizes rather than to cut a hundred other things that add up to the same amount of savings," Hochberg says. "We do a lot of pennywise, pound foolish sorts of things."
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White says the rule was and is simple: Keep it to 22 to 1, and when you get to 23, you build another classroom. "You can't afford to build another classroom, ask for a waiver."

"We let them off if they didn't have the money. They've always had the option to come in and ask for a waiver; many of them do. But we've never had anybody to come in and say, 'We just don't have the money to build that football stadium.' Somehow or another, they always found that money. So let's put our priorities right."

The former governor takes a long view of the state's present financial difficulties. 

"We've been in tough times before. I almost laugh out loud when I think about how tough things must be in Austin when oil is priced at $80 a barrel and I've sat there and lived through $9-a-barrel oil — and I didn't ask for any bailouts nor did we ever receive any bailout from the federal government," he says.

"If it's right for Texas and its future to say, 'Oh, we don't have any money,' or 'We don't have enough money to pay for a quality education for the young people of our state,' then you have made the classic mistake of not just eating your seed corn but you've poured salt on the seed corn you didn't eat," White says.

Financing schools should be the first priority of the Legislature, according to White. "Let's do our cutting somewhere else. You could quit building highways in Texas for five years and it would not hurt the future of Texas quite as much as if you change the funding on classes and quality of education in our schools today."

It makes perfect sense to argue that just one more student won't destroy a classroom. The problem is, as White's mother knew, one becomes four becomes six. And at a certain point, all the great teaching in the world won't be able to overcome the numbers-up disparity.

"It's a little difficult to put a young person's education on pause till times get better," White says. "22 to 1 should not be the whipping boy for being short of cash."

margaret.downing@houstonpress.com

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