Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Texas teachers urge Senate to keep class-size limit

By TERRENCE STUTZ | Austin Bureau
08 March 2011

AUSTIN — Teacher groups urged a Senate committee Tuesday to reject a bill that would ease class-size limits in elementary grades to help districts respond to massive cuts in state aid.

But school chiefs from across the state, including Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, told the Senate Education Committee that a change is needed in the longtime class-size standard.

“I am not a fan of testifying for this, but we have no other choice. We need some flexibility,” Hinojosa said.

He estimated the proposal would save his district $28 million a year because fewer teachers would be needed.

He also said Dallas could shift some resources to high schools — which might have larger classes if no change is made in the current 22-pupil limit in kindergarten through fourth grade.

His testimony came on the proposal by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to replace the strict 22-student cap with an “average” class requirement of 21 students in those grades.

In an effort to pick up support for the bill, Patrick said he will add a provision that allows no more than 24 students per class in any of the affected grades. He also indicated he will seek an end to state waivers that allow districts to avoid the class-size limit in certain cases.

Patrick said his bill would allow districts to save teacher jobs, particularly in the upper-grade levels in which class sizes are less regulated.

School districts are facing state funding cuts of as much as $5 billion a year.

“I believe the flexibility in this bill will enable school districts to retain more teachers. We want to do what is best for students and protect the jobs of as many teachers as possible,” Patrick said.

But state teacher groups disagreed, saying the real intent of the bill is to save money by slashing teacher jobs.

“Make no mistake. There will be more kids in classrooms,” said Patti Quinzi of the Texas AFT.

She called the 22-pupil limit one of the most effective reforms ever enacted in Texas. Because of it, the average class size in the five grade levels is 19.3 students.

Damage from easing the standard “will be substantial and long-lasting if the Legislature goes down this road,” she said.

Jennifer Canaday of the Association of Texas Professional Educators cited a “wealth of research” on the benefits of smaller classes for elementary students.

She also dismissed claims by the bill’s backers that it will save jobs. “The only way to get savings under this is to lay off teachers in elementary grades,” she said. “This is not the way to go.”

The class size restriction has been on the books since 1984 when Dallas businessman Ross Perot spearheaded a school reform movement that resulted in major legislation that year.

Senators also heard testimony on a measure by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, to ease some state requirements and give districts more flexibility to handle funding cuts over the next two years.

One of those changes would allow teacher furloughs of up to seven days to save money. None of the furlough days could be regular instructional days.

The committee took no action on the bills Tuesday.

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