Under increasing financial pressure, more than 240 school districts across the state have applied to waive the state-mandated requirement to maintain a student-to-teacher ratio of 22 to 1 in all classes from kindergarten through fourth grade, according to data released by the Texas Education Agency.

The waivers will affect about 1.1 million students, or 21 percent of the state’s student population, records show.

The class size waiver is possible through a controversial program called Districts of Innovation. State lawmakers passed House Bill 1842 in 2015, amending Chapter 12 of the Texas Education Code to create the Districts of Innovation program.

Before Districts of Innovation, school districts had to request waivers through the Texas Education Agency any time a class exceeded the 22:1 student-teacher ratio. But Districts of Innovation can apply for a status that exempts them from state class size rules altogether.

Four Galveston County school districts have applied for the class size statute waiver as District of Innovations.

The trend toward larger class sizes has some education experts worried about what that means for students and teachers. But keeping class sizes small and maintaining the ratio doesn’t come cheap and means hiring more teachers.

“Local school officials should continue to raise that issue with their legislators, not take it out on the students and educators by raising class sizes,” said Clay Robison, spokesman for Texas State Teachers Association.

Some educators have highlighted the benefits of the District of Innovation program, saying it allows for flexibility to hire instructors with industry experience in specific areas and gives them more control over local school year calendars. But critics say the clamor to become a District of Innovation is motivated mainly by financial difficulties afflicting districts across Texas.

Galveston Independent School District Superintendent Kelli Moulton, whose district did not apply for the class-size waiver, insisted that officials were committed to maintaining smaller ratios, but said financial struggles could be a cause for concern.

“When budgeting is a concern, many issues are on the table,” Moulton said. “Increasing class size is one option. GISD is committed to the classroom experience and the relational bond that develops between students and teacher. We will look at other options before intentionally increasing student-to-teacher ratios.”

RATIO RATIONALE

The state mandated a 22:1 student-teacher ratio in 1984 for elementary school students. The law was meant to ensure students get as much personal attention as possible in a classroom.

“There is not a magic number for how many students should be in a classroom,” said Mary Claire Gerwels, a senior lecturer in the department of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “But there are things on which class size has a number of effects. One big factor in education now is differentiation. Teachers are expected to differentiate education for all students. That’s hard with just a few, but it’s almost impossible with 22.”

Differentiated education means a teacher knows unique aspects of each child’s development across the academic spectrums so as to help them when they fall behind in one area or another, Gerwels said.

“The more children you pack into a classroom, the more needs go unmet,” Gerwels said.

Students are not interchangeable, however, so the actual kids in each class could determine more than just numbers would indicate, Gerwels said.

“It depends on who walks through the door,” Gerwels said. “Some children require more and need more from teachers than others.”

FINANCIAL PROBLEMS

Almost 700 districts across Texas have either become or announced plans to become Districts of Innovation at a time when area school officials say the current system for how Texas funds public education is unsustainable.

More and more school boards across Galveston County are forced to adopt deficit budgets as they struggle with myriad issues. Those include a state system that funnels local tax money to districts with small tax bases, less state funding and the loss of other funding avenues.

Local school officials have warned that hard decisions are in the near future if the state’s funding mechanisms aren’t improved.

“You’re looking at cuts across the board at every campus,” said Margaret Lee, assistant superintendent of business and operations for Texas City Independent School District, in a previous interview with The Daily News. “We’ll likely have to eliminate some programs.”

More than just programs, school districts would have to look at numerous cuts, Moulton said.

Some include eliminating programs such as fine arts, athletics or extracurriculars, eliminating transportation for some students, closing campuses and services, privatization of areas such as custodians, nutrition, transportation and counseling and teachers will continue to leave the profession, Moulton said.

While many education officials focused on programs, teacher and staff salaries consume the biggest percentage of most districts’ budgets.

Shortly into her tenure as superintendent, Moulton, at a November 2016 board of trustees meeting, discussed plans to reduce staff positions by 10 percent in the next five years.

KEEPING TABS

Galveston County education officials were divided on whether their districts were affected by the class size waivers.

Friendswood, Galveston and Hitchcock school districts had not requested any waivers through the state, officials said.

Four other area school districts — Texas City, Dickinson, Santa Fe and Clear Creek — are using the class size exemptions under the District of Innovation program.

Officials with those districts emphasized that the numbers were actually down from previous years and said they were keeping tabs of class sizes, despite being exempted from class size requirements.

THE ISSUE REMAINS

Although some education groups conceded that District of Innovation waivers could be good, their concern about the class size remained strong.

“I fully admit keeping class sizes small is an expensive proposition,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “But where are you going to put your priorities with spending?”

Before they were Districts of Innovation, districts could still get waivers on their class sizes, but had to fill out a request that was almost always granted by the state and notify the parents of students in the class, Exter said.

The problem with the new waiver is that it lets the district do the same thing without notifying everyone, Exter said.

“The bottom line is that the District of Innovation law was intended to allow districts to make changes that benefit the students, not cut corners on the budget and try to save money.”

Matt deGrood: 409-683-5230; matt.degrood@galvnews.com

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