State Comptroller Susan Combs undoubtedly has some ideas worth exploring in her new public school efficiency report linked at the bottom of this post. The Legislature should start, perhaps, with her recommendation that increased administrative staffing levels in school districts be examined. And, as she suggests, some district purchasing practices and building construction procedures can be revised without hurting educational quality.
But Combs’ No. 1 recommendation – lifting the 22student limit on kindergarten through fourth grade classes – would be a huge step backward and, despite her promise of potential shortterm savings of onehalf billion dollars a year, would cost the taxpayers more than that in the nottoodistant future.
Combs is only the latest official to take aim at 221 as an alleged costsavings step in the face of the state’s looming revenue shortfall. Last week, the Senate Education Committee also proposed that the cap, which has been in place since 1984, be removed, and school superintendents are becoming increasingly vocal in favor of removing the cap for the sake of greater budgetary flexibility.
They all fail to point out that, under current law, a school district can get a waiver from the state if the cap poses too great a budgetary problem. They also are ignoring the fact that the 221 studentteacher ratio is an important contributor to a quality learning environment for Texas’ youngest students. That’s why the cap has withstood the test of time, at least so far.
The comptroller proposes that the 22 students per class limit be replaced with a 22student average for school class sizes. That would mean some classes could be considerably larger than 22, large enough for some teachers in the primary grades to have to spend most of their time corralling, rather than teaching, their charges.
Combs says the state could save onehalf billion dollars or more a year by making the change. The savings would come, of course, from lost teacher jobs. But the comptroller’s math ignores the longterm costs of larger classes. Larger classes would, in many cases, hamper the learning process, resulting in lower test scores and, more significantly, youngsters who are lessprepared for the academic challenges of the higher grades and, ultimately, the work force. Larger classes also could worsen the dropout problem among disadvantaged kids who fail to receive as much individual attention as they need in the primary grades. The more dropouts, the more costs – ultimately – to the criminal justice system and the state’s social and economic fabric.
The comptroller also recommends, in essence, replacing the current teacher salary schedule with performancebased pay. The main problem with that idea, as always, is that performance would be based largely on student test scores. The best teachers do more than teach their students how to score high marks on tests. Combs also proposes that the Legislature make it easier for school districts to dismiss ineffective teachers.
Combs notes that perpupil spending on public education in Texas has increased by 63 percent since the 199899 school year, even after accounting for enrollment growth. If she is trying to suggest that the state already is spending enough money on the public schools, she is wrong. Texas wasn’t spending enough money in 199899, and it still isn’t spending enough. Even after the funding increase she cited, Texas still ranks a poor 38th among the states in average expenditures on perpupil instruction. Is Combs also suggesting that teachers shouldn’t have been given pay raises since 1999? Teacher pay has increased since then, but the average teacher pay in Texas is only 34th nationally.
The comptroller, in her report, also rates each school district on a system that, using TAKS scores and expenditures, purports to measure financial efficiency and academic achievement. Here is the link: