class size

Mark White angered teachers, but…


Some Texas teachers with long memories are still angry at Gov. Mark White for an insulting, one-time competency test that he was forced to enact to secure them a pay raise. But no Texas governor during the past two generations has come close to matching the educational legacy that White left behind after only four years in the governor’s office.

During White’s tenure, the Legislature in 1984 enacted House Bill 72, which made several lasting improvements – real reforms – in the public school system, most notably the 22-1 class size limit for grades K-4 and the “no pass, no play rule,” which requires students to maintain passing grades to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities.

White, you see, was more interested in school classrooms than school bathrooms.

Under the leadership of White and then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and Speaker Gib Lewis, the Legislature also increased state taxes and fees to boost public education funding by $4 billion. By the end of White’s term in January 1987, as R.G. Ratcliffe notes in the Texas Monthly article linked below, the state paid 67 percent of all public education costs in Texas, compared to a pitiful 38 percent now. School property taxes were much lower then too.

House Bill 72 also opened the door to standardized testing, which subsequently got out of hand under subsequent governors, beginning with George W. Bush.

The teacher competency test never should have happened, but White was forced to agree to it to secure a teacher pay raise from the Legislature. And he paid for it when teachers who had been a key factor in his 1982 election victory over Republican Bill Clements turned against him in his unsuccessful reelection bid in 1986.

More significant in White’s reelection loss, though, were plunging oil prices and a looming recession that drove a $1.6 billion deficit in the state budget during the campaign year. White was forced to call the Legislature into special session only weeks before Election Day and urge lawmakers to cut spending and raise taxes.

If they needed political cover, he said, “Blame me.”

The voters blamed him and returned Clements to the governor’s office. Even in the face of the worsening economy and budgetary picture, Clements had campaigned on a pledge to cut taxes, which he had to break within months after returning to Austin. The tax increase Clements signed in 1987 is still one of the largest in Texas history.

White was fond of quoting Sam Houston: “Do right and risk the consequences.” He did “right” for public education and other critical state needs and certainly suffered some consequences.

Wrong decisions also have consequences, such as the hits that educators and school children have suffered from recent election results.

The longer Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick remain in office, the more state funding of public schools continues to slip – 38 percent and dropping . And the more the education community – whether every educator realizes it or not — misses the kind of real commitment Mark White had to public education.




You can be optimistic about pre-K, but…


Recent news articles about the Texas Education Agency report recommending limited class sizes for pre-K generated a lot of positive buzz, as it should have, but here is a belated spoiler alert. The TEA’s consultants don’t reflect the short-sighted attitudes of many Texas legislators and may not even have the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, who gives himself more credit as a pre-K advocate than he deserves.

The governor and the Legislature will decide the fate of the recommendations, which include limiting class sizes to 22 students and limiting student-to-teacher ratios to 11-to-1 for classes that have more than 15 students. The recommendations follow research that repeatedly has demonstrated the value of small class sizes in improving the educational environment for young children. TSTA also has long advocated for smaller classes and the funding to pay for them.

Strangely enough, the state’s 22-1 limit on class sizes for grades K-4 – which is widely circumvented anyway — doesn’t apply to pre-K, and it is no sure thing that this report will change that. The Dallas Morning News story linked below explains some of the political obstacles, but it may be behind a pay wall for many readers.

Smaller class sizes will require more funding, and Gov. Abbott and the legislative majority have a history of opposing adequate funding for public schools, preferring instead to over-test kids and experiment with privatization.

Gov. Abbott allegedly made “quality” pre-K a “priority” during the 2015 legislative session, but his real priority was cutting taxes. Abbott signed tax cuts worth $3.8 billion (with a b), while his pre-K “priority” limped out of the legislative session with a $116 million appropriation that didn’t even replace all the pre-K funding that had been lost during the 2011 education budget cuts. Many districts found the individual grants so small for their needs that they didn’t even bother to apply for one.

As the Dallas News’ article points out, some members of the Senate Education Committee are openly hostile to pre-K, and some of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tea party supporters consider the program “Godless.”

Meanwhile, the same senators will eagerly entertain a discussion at next week’s Education Committee meeting about how to drain tax dollars from public schools for vouchers and other privatization schemes – not invest them in pre-K classrooms, where they can actually do some good.




Yes, folks, class size does matter


It is partly common sense, which was lost on the education budget cutters in the Legislature a few years ago. Now, there is additional academic affirmation of what should be obvious. Class size does matter, and the smaller the better.

Research shows that children learn more and teachers are more effective in smaller classes, concludes a new policy brief by the National Education Policy Center. And, it notes, smaller classes are even more critical for low-income and minority children, who now account for more than half of Texas’ public school enrollment.

“Any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations,” the author, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, writes.

She also points out, “The per-pupil impact is reasonably stable across class-size reductions of different sizes and from different baseline class sizes.” In other words, always think smaller, not larger.

In case your memory needs refreshing, members of the legislative majority in 2011 – driven more by ideology than common sense or the needs of school children — pooh-poohed previous academic studies generally pointing out the same thing. They slashed $5.4 billion from public school budgets, left several billion dollars of taxpayers’ money in the bank and forced school districts to seek thousands of waivers for overcrowded elementary school classrooms.

The budget-cutters argued that there was nothing “magical” about Texas’ 22-1 student-teacher ratio for K-4, which they forced districts to violate. Magic, though, has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of keeping class sizes at a small enough level to allow teachers to give students the individual attention they need to succeed. Based on her report, Schanzenbach likely would agree that 15-1 would be better, but she also would point out that 22-1 certainly is better than the levels to which many classrooms swelled after the budget cuts.

Many classes are still too crowded as districts continue to operate under an inadequate and unfair school funding system. And, the ultimate victims are children.

“Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes and one that can be directly influenced by policy,” Schanzenbach writes. “All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.”

She added: “The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run but also their long-term human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will be offset by more substantial social and educational costs in the future.”

If only members of the legislative majority could grasp the reality that Texas’ future won’t end with the next Republican primary.