AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Among proposed solutions to the state's massive budget deficit is changing a Texas law that holds most elementary school classes to no more than 22 students.
Legislative leaders and Comptroller Susan Combs say easing the requirement would save hundreds of millions of dollars and give school districts more flexibility in educating students.
But teachers groups, backed by Democrats in the House and Senate, say any change will reverse academic gains in elementary schools and force the elimination of as many as 12,000 teaching jobs.
Combs, a Republican, recently recommended that lawmakers scrap the 22-student limit in kindergarten through fourth grade, switching to an average class-size standard of 22. The class-size requirement has been law since 1984.
The change would mean an extra three students per class on average in those five grades. The comptroller's office says that the current average with the 22-pupil limit is 19.3 students per class.
Combs said the change would save an estimated $558 million a year, mostly through elimination of thousands of teaching jobs.
When it meets again in January, the Legislature is set to address a budget shortfall of more than $20 billion.
"The 22-student limit was just a number pulled out of thin air. What we want to do is simply give flexibility and freedom to teachers, principals and superintendents to do what is best for students in their district," said Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, a leading advocate of revising the class-size limit.
Patrick, who tried to put an "average" class-size standard into state law two years ago, noted that there are no class-size caps in upper grade levels in Texas. He said the change wouldn't hurt the education of students.
But Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, told The Dallas Morning News that the class-size limit has been a big factor in the academic successes that Texas has seen in the early elementary grades.
"When we put 22-to-1 in the law, there was a reason for doing it. There were a lot of studies showing that smaller classes were important for student achievement, especially in the elementary grades," he said.
The newspaper reports that some national studies have been focused on the advantages of smaller classes, but there is no recent research on how effective Texas' 22-student limit is in promoting academic success.
A 2000 study by the Rand Corp. praised Texas for its progress with elementary school children, citing smaller classes as a key factor in improved scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The study determined that "states at the top of the heap generally have lower pupil-teacher ratios in lower grades."
A 1999 report from the Texas Education Agency said that research across the country indicated that class-size restrictions have the greatest impact on student achievement when classes are less than 20 students, especially for economically disadvantaged and minority students.
Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association said the class-size cap has been one of the most popular requirements in schools for years.
Adopting the comptroller's recommendation to eliminate the cap "will put a lot of teachers out of work and put a lot of kids in bigger classes," he said. "Is that what Texas parents really want?"
Linda Bridges, president of the Texas chapter of American Federation of Teachers, said the proposed change in the law represents "a giant leap backwards" in efforts to improve student achievement.
To keep the limit, every time a class in kindergarten through fourth grade hits 23 or more students, a new class must be created.
If districts can't find enough teachers or don't have enough classroom space, the law allows for them to get a state waiver. The state rarely turns down waivers. Last year 145 districts received waivers that allowed larger classes at 548 elementary schools.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said superintendents across the state "have asked that we relieve them of state mandates that are very expensive."
For now, Shapiro said she agrees with Combs' recommendation to shift to a class-size average in the elementary grades rather than have a strict limit on the number of students per class.