Relaxing Ed Requirements: Savings at What Cost?

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In a session with a $27 billion budget shortfall, a looming and often unspoken question tends to linger through hearings and debates: Can cost-cutting mechanisms also make for good policy? At Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Democratic senators weren’t so shy in saying “No.”

“What’s the evidence [this is] in the best interest of the children?” asked Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, as two of his colleagues laid out bills to overhaul a variety of regulations for school districts. Democrats on the committee repeated echoed the sentiment as they learned more about the bills that would undoubtedly save schools money by, among other things, relaxing requirements around furloughing and firing teachers and making class sizes more flexible.

In her introduction, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, seemed to package her bill as a move toward more flexibility, noting she had “advocated for local control for 20 years.” But she acknowledged the concerns about ceding back so many decisions to the districts. “Be forewarned,” she told the superintendents and school officials in the room. “What we do, we can undo.”

Sen. Dan Patrick took a optimistic—some might say overly-optimistic—approach. “The object here is to help districts, help superintendents,” he explained. His goal, he said, was “students first, teachers first, flexibility first.” Not everyone would agree with that assessment of his bill, SB 443, which specifically would change the rules on class size limits and would allow a host of districts to be exempted from state regulations.

The latter change is pretty straight forward. The state currently allows schools with an “exemplary” rating to forgo a variety of requirements. Since exemplary schools have the highest rank, the logic goes, they don’t need to be told how to provide an education. Patrick would let “recognized” campuses—the second tier in the ranking system—have the same privileges.

According the Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis, that would mean around 70 percent of campuses would be exempt from a whole lot of the state regulations. She questioned witnesses, and Patrick himself, with unveiled skepticism, arguing the bills were “using the budget crisis for purposes of changing policy.” Much like West, she argued the only reason the Senate would consider such a rule change would be to help the districts save money in anticipation of inevitably deep cuts to education.

The arguments around changing the class size limit followed a similar course. Currently, the state requires kindergarten through fourth grade classes to stay at 22 students per teacher. Districts can request waivers when need be, and the Texas Education Agency rarely turns anyone down. Patrick would like to do away with the waiver system, and instead set a “hard cap” of 24 students per class—no exceptions. However, he also requires an average of 21 students per teacher in the district. (The bill doesn’t currently get rid of waivers, but Patrick has promised to add in the language.)

Don’t try to tell Patrick that his bill would expand class sizes. He got in some digs on the media, arguing his bill could actually decrease class sizes. There’s some logic here. Currently, hard-pressed districts sometimes have to make middle school and high school classes bigger to accommodate the class size limits in the elementary school. Patrick thinks this would spread things around a bit more.

Others disagree. “Make no mistake about it: There will be increased class sizes,” argued Patty Quinzi, the legislative counsel for the teachers’ group Texas AFT.

No matter, according to Shapiro, who argued earlier in the hearing that it’s teacher quality, not class size, that determines how much kids learn.

“A really good effective teacher in the classroom would probably be able to handle 35 [students] to one [teacher],” she said in support of the bill. “A really bad teacher probably couldn’t handle 15 to one.”

In the hallway outside the hearing room, I chatted with a policy advocate and an official from the Texas Education Agency. Relaxing class size limits didn’t seem like such a big deal, said the advocate, pointing out that when he learned in a classroom with 30 or 40 other kids and did just fine. The TEA official hesitated. There probably weren’t special needs kids or non-English speakers in that classroom, the official finally responded. Now, one in ten students have special needs.

Shapiro’s bill also had implications for class size, removing the current ten to one limit on remediation classes for those students who had failed their state assessment exams. But that was hardly the most controversial change. Additionally, the bill would allow students who have already failed the state exams twice to forgo the usual third remediation attempt at the end of the summer. Students who fail their first exam currently go to summer school. If they fail after the summer program, they spend the last two weeks of the summer on another remediation attempt, and then they take their third stab at the test at the very end of the summer. Shapiro’s bill would roll that last attempt at test preparation into the next year’s classes. Students would prepare to pass the nagging exam while they were also learning new material for the next grade.

By and large, superintendents liked both bills, not surprisingly since the cost saving measures will help them balance their own accounts and give the districts more power. ”You would allow us to use our best judgment,” Richard Middleton, superintendent for Northeast Independent School District, told the committee. The district’s “recognized” status “should earn me some flexibility” when it came to determining which classes should be big and which students needed particular attention.

“We always follow the rules at Cypress Fairbanks ISD,” said David Anthony, the Cypress Fairbanks superintendent, “but we would like to have fewer rules to follow.”

Democrats and teacher’s groups weren’t sold. In addition to the testimony from teachers’ group Texas AFT, witnesses from both the Association of Teachers and Professional Educators and the Texas State Teachers Association both criticized the measures. “We think this is the opposite of flexibility,” said ATPE’s Jennifer Canaday.

The Democrats maintained that all the proposed changes were simply ways to justify cutting education funds. According the West, all the changes were “predicated on the financial crisis we’re currently facing.”

“The question will be, what empirical evidence did you have” for relaxing the regulations, said Davis. “Every discussion that we make as policymakers should be evidence based.”

I spotted Richard Kouri, the public affairs director for the Texas State Teachers Association. I asked him specifically about Patrick’s argument that by letting districts do more of their own decision-making, the potentially cost-saving measures might also improve education.  Is there a way to cut costs without reducing quality, I asked him. Dan Patrick says there is.

“There could be some some circumstances where that happens,” Kouri told me. “His bill isn’t one of them.”