December 6, 2012

North Texas classrooms getting crowded as districts seek waivers

The provision was added last year to counteract funding cuts.

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North Texas school districts have been taking advantage of a "financial hardship" provision in the Education Code that allows them to increase the number of kindergarten through fourth-grade students in their classrooms.

The provision, approved in 2011 by then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott, grants class-size exemptions to counteract the effects of reduced state funding.

The Legislature passed a budget last year that sliced $5.4 billion from public school funding, leading to larger class sizes in many districts.

The waivers provide a one-year reprieve from a 30-year-old state law that limits class sizes to 22 students per teacher in kindergarten through fourth grade.

There are no student caps in grades five and up.

The Texas Education Agency reports that 170 districts statewide have received class-size waivers this semester for 994 classrooms, affecting more than 22,000 students in the oversize classes.

That number, though higher than pre-2011 levels, is down from the record 257 districts that requested waivers last year for some 8,000 classrooms. That figure was triple the number of districts requesting waivers before 2011, according to media reports and teachers' groups.

Larger class sizes are one consequence of the substantial reduction in education funding, which led to a school funding trial that began in October in Austin.

More than 600 districts are suing the state, saying the school finance system is not adequately funding the education system and thus is unconstitutional.

Testimony in the districts' case wrapped up this week, and the state's defense began Thursday.

Grapevine-Colleyville is one of several Tarrant-area districts that have asked for waivers this fall.

Trustees were dismayed at having to settle for larger class sizes when they approved the latest waiver request last month.

Trustee Becky St. John voted against her district's waiver requests to protest the Legislature's actions.

"Our state senator was under the impression that since the lights were turned on and kids were in the classroom, then everything's OK in public education," she said at the November school board meeting.

At the beginning of the school year, the district requested three class-size waivers, but three more classrooms recently exceeded the 22-to-1 limit by a combined three students.

Trustee Jesse Rodriguez called it "an irony" that Grapevine-Colleyville enrollment numbers were under initial projections "and yet we still have to ask for waivers."

State records show that Aledo requested waivers for two schools; Birdville for nine; Eagle Mountain-Saginaw for six; and Mansfield for nine.

Arlington has not requested class-size waivers this year, according to state records and the district.

Fort Worth received a class-size waiver in 2011-12, according to Sammy Monge, the district's chief of human capital management.

Monge said the district is working on a waiver request for this school year.

Trustees in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district approved a motion in September to request waivers for 105 of 391 kindergarten- through fourth-grade classrooms, in all but one of its 19 elementary schools.

Keller trustees approved a request for 47 class waivers in September for 2012-13, according to a recent S tar-Telegram report.

The classes were in 13 of the district's elementary schools.

Without waivers, districts must reassign students to classes that are under the limit or add classes and hire more teachers.

"Because of the economic impact, a lot of districts do not have those funds to spend another $50,000 to $60,000, including salary, benefits, classroom space and other costs, to add another class," said Clyde Steelman, executive director of the Region 11 Education Service Center.

The venerable 22-to-1 ratio seems in little danger of going away.

Smaller class sizes make a difference, according to most studies on the subject.

Education Week magazine recently cited a longtime study by researchers in Tennessee. It found that in classes of 13 to 17 primary school students, learning gains stayed with them after they moved into average-size classes.

Gains made by disadvantaged and African-American students in smaller classes were on average twice as large as those made by white students. The study has covered Tennessee schools continuously since the late 1970s.

Some educators say a good support group is more important for elementary students than class size.

"If you have a highly qualified, motivated teacher and parents actively engaged in a student's learning, the kids wouldn't miss out on that extra little bit of individual instruction," said Steelman, of the Region 11 center.

"To me, it doesn't matter if you have 10 students or 30 students, they're still missing out if they have a poor-quality teacher and no parental support."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @startelegram

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