Texas Loosens Requirement on Class-Size Waivers

By Andrew Trotter — October 20, 2004 3 min read
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The Texas Education Agency made it easier this month for Texas school districts to apply for waivers from the state’s class-size requirements, without needing a public discussion every time a waiver request is made.

The change is intended to give districts flexibility in meeting the state’s class-size maximum of 22 students per teacher, established by a 1984 law. But the loosening of the procedure provoked an immediate and negative response from parent and teacher groups.

“I think it’s an effort to fly under the radar, and obliterate one of the key things that has improved student learning in Texas,” said Aimee Bolender, the president of the Alliance of Dallas Educators, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

By established procedure, school boards are permitted to apply for waivers due to shortages of facilities or teachers or high levels of student mobility. But the intention to seek waivers must be raised as an official agenda item at a public school board meeting. School districts must reapply for waivers every semester.

Shirley J. Neeley

In an Oct. 5 letter to school districts, Commissioner of Education Shirley J. Neeley outlined two new options, made “with a view toward reducing paperwork and simplifying procedures.”

One allows local school boards “to delegate authority to the superintendent to submit a request for a class size waiver without making each waiver request a board agenda item.” Once the school board has voted to delegate its authority, the TEA would accept waiver applications with only the superintendent’s signature. A board could delegate its authority for a specified period or leave it open-ended.

The second option applies to any district that has an overall student-mobility rate of 20 percent or greater, based on data officially reported to the state. Such a district can request class-size waivers for up to 10 percent of its classrooms for grades K-4 simply by sending the agency a letter.

The state’s three largest teachers’ groups—the Texas Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the AFT; the Texas State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association; and the Association of Texas Professional Educators—have joined the Texas PTA and the Texas Elementary and Secondary Principals Association in decrying the policy change.

The groups sent an Oct. 8 letter to Ms. Neeley, asking her to rescind the new procedures.

Craig Tounget, the executive director of the Texas PTA, said that in districts where school boards delegate the authority to request waivers, “this will give the superintendent carte blanche, to say ‘yes, we can just do that.’ ”

“The only time parents are going to know this law is being violated is when their child comes home and tells them they are sharing a desk,” he said.

In fact, school districts must notify parents, though not necessarily in advance, if their children’s class size exceeds the maximum of 22 students per teacher.

Local Board Support

The state’s school boards like having the new options, which give them flexibility to deal with unexpected shifts in their staffing and building needs, said Cathy Golson, the assistant director of the Texas Association of School Boards.

“Fast-growth districts may be the ones who look at it carefully,” she said.

But Ms. Golson said school boards do not regard the change as a mandate to make greater use of waivers. “We are very supportive of class size limits—we know that is an important factor for student learning, and parents are supportive of it as well,” she said.

The number of districts requesting waivers for this fall is still being tallied, but appears to be about 90 of the 1,040 districts in the state, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. Last fall, 117 districts asked for waivers; in the spring, 84 requested them.

Ms. Ratcliffe said most districts requesting waivers are rapidly growing urban districts.

She said Commissioner Neeley has no plans to rescind the new procedures but was scheduled to meet with representatives of the protesting groups Oct. 18.

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