Trying to dodge the heat

Often overlooked in the controversy over proposals to lift the 22student limit on class sizes in kindergarten through the fourth grade is the fact that school districts that can’t afford to meet the requirement already have an escape clause. All they have to do is ask the Texas Education Agency for waivers, which usually are granted.

So, why are some superintendents pressing the Legislature to lift the cap? Because the 221 limit is extremely popular with parents and other taxpayers, and superintendents don’t like the responsibility of removing such an important educational tool from their schools. They want the Legislature to take the blame instead, particularly since lawmakers are poised to slash the education budget next year.

A statewide survey conducted for TSTA last year showed that 77 percent of Texans consider smaller class sizes either extremely or very important to a quality education and improved student learning. The 221 limit has been on the books since 1984 because it works, and people know that it does. It keeps classes small enough to allow teachers in the primary grades to give our youngest students the individual attention they need.

Jason Embry notes today in his column in the Austin AmericanStatesman that 3,085 waivers have been granted and only five requests denied by TEA since 1984. Jason speculates correctly that superintendents dislike having to “tell parents they are requesting a waiver to make classes larger.”

If districts “routinely” circumvent the limit with waivers, Jason also wonders, what’s the point of having the limit? According to my math, though, the waivers aren’t routinely requested. They average out to only about 120 a year, meaning most of the state’s 1,100 school districts are complying with the cap, and that’s why it has been successful.

As I noted in a blog post a few months ago, there is evidence that class size waivers can result in lowering a school’s accountability rating. This is based on research conducted by the Texas Elementary Principals & Supervisors Association (TEPSA) in 20072008.

According to TEPSA, the number of class size waivers granted per campus that year was in direct inverse proportion to the state accountability rating of that campus. In other words, higher rated campuses received fewer waivers to the 221 cap. TEPSA derived its findings from the TEA Regional and District Level Report to the 2009 Legislature.

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