Class size controversy debate rages in Houston

January 6, 2011 4:22:41 PM PST
A move to save money could impact your child's education. State lawmakers are looking to lift the limit on how many children can be in a classroom. It's a plan that has both teachers and parents unhappy. There's a growing debate over the changes that could be coming to your child's school. Even though studies show a lower student to teacher ratio helps kids learn, HISD is pushing to put more kids in the classroom. It would save money and cut jobs. HISD supports the plan, but doesn't even know how much money it could save.

Picking one budget cut over another is like picking between two ant hills to step on -- they're both going to sting. When it comes to class size though, HISD admits smaller classes help young kids learn. But in a move that may surprise parents, the district told us they won't fight to stop bigger classes from coming. HISD administrators are actually pushing to lift the cap.

Rhonda Jones has fourth grade twins -- one in an HISD public school, the other at a private school with smaller class sizes. And it may not be university research, but this mom knows the results.

She said, "It definitely does make a difference, the amount of time a teacher is allowed to spend with one child over the other."

So when she heard the state may soon allow schools to pack more kids in an elementary classroom, this PTA president didn't like the idea.

"Class size is not negotiable," Jones said.

Teachers don't like it.

Gayle Fallon with the Houston Federation of Teachers said, "A little common sense -- more children in a class, less teacher time per child. Less teacher time per child, probably child less assistance when they need it."

Even HISD admits raising class size will hurt.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett said, "Studies will show you that smaller class sizes can help the learning environment."

But to state lawmakers who may need to cut as much as $4-6 billion from state education funding to close the budget gap, it does make sense. Right now the size of kindergarten through fourth grade classes are capped in Texas at 22 kids for every teacher. The proposal would allow schools to squeeze a few more kids in every class. It could make for some crowded spots. It could save the state $560 million, but HISD has no idea how much it will save here.

"Not at this time because the numbers aren't there," Garrett said.

But even before they figure that out, they've figured out they're supportive of the change. A spokesperson told us, "The district is supportive of relaxing the 22:1 requirement and know it would save the district some money."

Jones said, "It makes me angry."

And she plans to fight. She'd already called board of education members when we spoke this morning.

"I don't think, once the point is made, that there will be anybody who can make a logical stand for supporting that," Jones said.

HISD doesn't know the savings, because it still doesn't know the size of the state cut. Ultimately packing more kids in a class will be up to each elementary school principal who, in Houston, has sole discretion over their school's budget, making it impossible to figure out just how much money the district could save. When it comes to lobbying in Austin, HISD says it would rather fight against other cuts.

HISD isn't alone in fighting to increase classroom sizes. Our area's second largest district, Cy-Fair ISD, wants it too. While the district won't admit that to us, State Senator Dan Patrick's office says Cy-Fair's administration is already lobbying hard to support his proposal.