Charter schools may help ease Texas’ budget

Freedom New Mexico

Texas’ next legislative session is nearly eight months away, but already analysts are predicting a revenue shortfall as high as $15 billion. More than half of our neighboring state’s general revenue funds are spent on education.

Some state lawmakers have begun looking for ways to trim the education budget, and class size mandates are getting a hard look.

State law caps classes in grades kindergarten through four to 22 students, although waivers often are granted. Some states keep class sizes as small as 15 students.

With class sizes limited, student population growth means schools have to provide more classrooms and hire more teachers. And that adds expenses to the budget.

Some lawmakers suggest raising the cap; Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, wants to allow schools to set their own standards. Patrick is a member of a legislative committee on school finance.

The current 22-student limit “is a number we have used without any scientific, empirical data saying that it is the perfect number,” Patrick told The Dallas Morning News.

Teachers invariably prefer smaller classes, and several studies conducted since the 1940s through this decade have concluded students are likely to perform better in smaller classrooms. A review of the studies, along with additional research, published by the American Psychological Society in 2001, found that while student improvement is obvious and measurable, it was modest and inconsistent from study to study.

Teachers themselves have told researchers that smaller class sizes enable them to devote more time to individual students who need it, managing their behavior is easier, and the students are more attentive and less distracted in smaller settings.

APS researchers noted one problem with mandating smaller classes. “Class-size reduction initiatives presuppose the availability of teachers who are equivalent in quality to existing teachers to staff the extra classrooms,” the report states, noting, “Many school districts are facing great difficulty in finding qualified teachers to staff their schools and a large-scale class-size reduction policy would exacerbate this problem.”

But the benefits of smaller class sizes, with competent teachers, they determined, would not be limited to the specific classes, “but also their whole trajectory of learning thereafter.

Clearly, we have competing camps — educators with evidence that smaller classes are better for teachers and for many students, and lawmakers who have to reconcile education goals with the amount of money they have to meet them.

One obvious way to mitigate the problem would be to raise the state cap on charter schools — something many of those same educators have fought.

Charter schools tend to be small, with smaller individual classes. Many are housed in leased or privately funded buildings, lowering capital costs. Allowing more such schools to operate would place more students in such smaller settings, making it easier to maintain class size goals. It would also reduce overall enrollment in larger public schools, which would reduce their classroom, staffing and budget problems.

Like many elements of our society, education is an issue that is growing in complexity. Lawmakers, including ours in New Mexico, should recognize that fact, and be willing to look beyond traditional education strategies.

Specifically, they should be willing to incorporate charter schools and other private options. The answer to many of their impending problems just might lie in such an expanded approach.