- Almost 160,000 students, mostly minority (70% Hispanic, 24% African American, 5% White, 1% Asian), with 89% of families earning less than 130% of the federal government’s defined poverty level ($30,600/year for a family of 4).
- The number of schools in DISD designated by the state of Texas as “IR,” or Improvement Required, grew this year from 34 to 43. Almost one out of every 5 DISD schools is an IR school, or 19% of the 224 schools in the district.
- Initial state testing results for 2013-2014 did not show any significant improvement, and in fact, revealed decreases in 18 out of 22 comparisons for AA students and 14 out of 22 comparisons for Hispanic and Economically Disadvantaged students.
- This year, 42.1% of district high school students are in the position of having failed one or more of the tests required to graduate.
It is no wonder that many citizens of Dallas feel an urgency to do something to turn things around quickly. Unfortunately, history has proven that there is no magic bullet in education- no single program or reform will cause student achievement to skyrocket.
However, there is one time-tested and proven strategy which can and should be employed by Dallas ISD to benefit the youngest learners: smaller class sizes with experienced teachers. A definitive review article was published by the National Education Policy Center in February 2014 by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University titled “Does Class Size Matter?” which reviewed all of the research to date on class size and made the following policy recommendations:
1) Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy. All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.
2) The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run, but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.
3) The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.
4) Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.
It is crucial that Dallas ISD does everything in its power to provide the best education for its students so that each student can achieve their potential in life. A reasonable start, backed by excellent research, is the simple step of ensuring that every Kindergarten through 4th grade class in DISD adheres to the state law of 22 students or less per class (not an average of 22).
A short history of the use of class size waiver requests in Dallas ISD is in order.
In 2009, Dr. Hinojosa “lost” $64 million in the budget. This resulted in a reduction in force (RIF) along with the need to request 38 class size waivers.
In 2011, the Texas state legislature cut public school funding by $5.4 billion, which resulted in a DISD budget cut of $76.9 million and a staff reduction of 1,442 employees. Many districts, including DISD, were forced at that time to request record numbers of Class Size Waivers from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In 2011, DISD requested 45 Class Size Waivers.
Enter the era of Superintendent Mike Miles. Miles was given carte blanche by the Board of Trustees to hire his chosen administrators with no restrictions on salaries. He expanded the number of administrative positions and increased salaries. The reserve fund grew due to a savings of $20 million through budgeted teacher vacancies.
Miles requested a record number of 435 Class Size Waivers in 2012. The TEA eventually granted 212 waivers for DISD that year. In 2013, Miles requested 130 Class Size Waivers, despite the fact that the district received $50 million more from the state. In the 2013-2014 school year, Miles overspent the transportation budget by at least $10 million due to increasing the number of bus routes for his Imagine 2020 plan by allowing the schools to vary their start and dismissal times. This did not prove to increase student achievement in the I-2020 schools despite the large investment.
Many school districts have recovered significantly this year. DISD boasts a reserve fund of at least $300 million. It would seem that the need for Class Size Waiver Requests should be much lower as a result. Indeed, this is the case across North Texas: According to a recent article in the Dallas Morning News, the Plano, Allen, and McKinney ISDs are not requesting ANY Class Size Waivers this year, and Richardson ISD, despite explosive growth, has reduced its class size waiver requests from 22 last year to only one this school year.
Unfortunately, Dallas ISD is the glaring exception: Miles has requested 156 Class Size Waivers this year, as compared to 130 last year.
As stated earlier, “All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.”
Why is the district doing something which is known to harm students, when it is no longer necessary due to financial constraints? This year, the district lists “lack of qualified teachers, especially bilingual” as their justification for requesting 156 waivers. Surely, not all 156 are bilingual teachers. The district had been warned multiple times in the past NOT to decrease the bilingual stipend for fear of losing these teachers to surrounding districts. The district decreased the bilingual stipend in 2011-2012 from $4000/ yr to $1500/yr. It remained at that low level until the 2013-2014 school year, when it was increased to $2000-3000/year, where it remains today. In contrast, athletic coaches and assistant coaches receive a stipend of $4000-6000/year. Surrounding districts offer the same or more stipend, but with a higher base salary rate. Where are our priorities?
Eleven of the “met standards” schools which had class size waivers in the 2012-2013 are now listed as “Improvement Required” schools. Five schools were already “IR” in 2012-2013 and had Class Size Waivers, and remained “IR” for 2013-2014. Twenty-eight percent of the requests this year are for class sizes of 25 or greater and 15% will have class sizes over 26 per class. This is a far cry from other ISD’s, which will hire extra teachers rather than put more than 2 extra children per classroom.
DISD could apply the same solution as other surrounding districts do for classrooms which currently are slated to have 25 or more students. This would require 17 more teachers at approximately $53,000 per year (a high estimate, but some of these would be bilingual teachers), at a price tag of about $900,000. Adding a class would allow smaller class sizes of 18-21 students in each case. Where could they find the money? Well, DISD just paid about $760,000 to a vendor with whom they did not have a contract. They also had to pay back E-Rate funds of $423,000 because they had not followed the correct protocol. If they could straighten out their financial ship, they would save millions. They could re-work the transportation plans for the Imagine-2020 schools in order to use some of the $10 million for additional teachers to reduce the need for Class Size Waivers. This money would get more bang for the buck than spending it to alter the bus schedules to change school start/dismissal times by 15 minutes.
It is time for the trustees to require the superintendent to keep our K- 4 classrooms at or below the state maximum of 22 students. This is not only the law in Texas: it reflects best practices according to good research.
The trustees should direct the superintendent to hire additional teachers as suggested and deny approval of these waivers. If we want to truly be a data-driven district, then we need follow the recommendations from years of data collection which show that class size DOES matter. Dallas ISD needs to not only say that they have a commitment to educational excellence, they need to prove it through their actions to provide the best possible learning environment for all students.