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By Meghan Ashford-Grooms January 21, 2012

Silvestre Reyes says says 282 Texas school districts requested class-size waivers because of 'unprecedented fiscal challenges'

In a Jan. 9, 2012, press release, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, urged Republican Gov. Rick Perry to convene a special legislative session so lawmakers can provide more money to "under-served schools."

Citing the Legislature's 2011 decision to give school districts $4 billion less through August 2013 than they would have gotten under previous funding formulas, Reyes said: "Our school districts are now experiencing unprecedented fiscal challenges and being forced to take drastic measures, like increasing class sizes and cutting instructional supports. In fact, the Texas Education Agency is reporting that 282 school districts have requested emergency waivers to increase class sizes."

That would be nearly a third of the state's 1,000-plus districts. Is the congressman right?

His statistic checks out, we found, but it's unlikely that all the requests were driven by financial difficulties.

Texas has capped the size of classes in kindergarten through fourth grade since 1984, when the Legislature passed a measure setting the limit at 22 students per teacher. The thinking at the time was that smaller classes would result in greater student achievement.

But the caps had an out. Currently, a school district may receive a waiver if the state education commissioner "finds the limit works an undue hardship on the district." In an interview, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told us that state education officials originally set two scenarios under which waivers would be granted: if a district were unable to hire enough teachers or lacked the classroom space to meet the 22:1 ratio. Later, she said, the agency added an additional factor — if a district had experienced unanticipated enrollment growth.

From fall 1993 through spring 2010, the number of districts granted class-size waivers generally fluctuated between 90 and 150 each semester, according to information in two reports from the education agency. Ratcliffe told us that over the years, the agency approved "virtually every waiver (request) that was submitted."

To support Reyes' claim that the number of Texas school districts seeking waivers rocketed to 282 this school year, his office sent us a Jan. 3, 2012, El Paso Times article containing figures attributed to the state. As of Dec. 21, 2011, the article says, 282 districts had requested waivers for 1,643 campuses and 8,186 classrooms. When requesting a waiver, a district must designate how many classes at each campus will exceed the cap.

Ratcliffe, confirming the 282 figure, told us that of those requests, 266 were granted outright while 16 districts were given partial approval, meaning some campuses could exceed the limit while others could not. The education agency generally rejected waivers for campuses rated "academically unacceptable" under the state's education accountability rating system, Ratcliffe said.

As of Jan. 10, 2012, a total of 286 districts had sought class-size waivers. Of those, 270 — including the Austin, Del Valle, Eanes, Hays, Lake Travis, Leander, Manor, Pflugerville and Round Rock districts — had been granted waivers outright.

That's an all-time high, Ratcliffe said. For comparison, she said, there were 168 waivers granted to districts in the 2010-11 school year. So, as of early 2012, district class-size waivers had increased 61 percent since the previous school year.

What’s going on?

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Even before the 2011 legislative session began in January, state funding for education was expected to be stressed because of lawmakers' vow to balance the 2012-13 state budget without raising taxes. In addition to the $4 billion drop in formula-based funding to districts, lawmakers also did not renew about $1.3 billion in grant funding for education programs.

Some districts had local funding problems as well, Ratcliffe said, as declining property values reduced property tax revenue.

To help districts deal with the budget-tightening, lawmakers considered softening the 22-to-1 class-size cap. They did not agree on any change, but in the fall, Education Commissioner Robert Scott made it easier for districts to exceed the limit by adding "financial hardship" as a fourth reason districts could qualify for a waiver.

Ratcliffe told us that this school year is unusual because some districts had enough classroom space to adhere to the class-size rule and had access to qualified teacher candidates, but still lacked the funds to hire them.

Ratcliffe speculated that districts' financial difficulties are what led to the big uptick in waiver requests this school year. Another likely factor, she said, is that some districts built their budgets assuming that lawmakers would loosen the class-size cap — and when that didn't happen, they were too far along in budgeting for the year to adjust.

We asked the education agency whether all the districts that had requested waivers as of early 2012 had cited "financial hardship" in their applications. Ratcliffe said the agency had not crunched the data that way.

On Jan. 19, 2012, we looked at the data ourselves after generating a report on this school year’s waivers from the education agency’s website. The report had 2,911 entries, one for each grade level of each school that would be affected by a waiver. For example, if a district received a waiver for kindergarten and fourth grade at one elementary school, there would be two entries in the report for that campus.

Our overview:

** At least 163 school districts that had received waivers cited "financial hardship" as the reason for seeking the exception for at least one campus. That's 60 percent of the total number of districts that had received waivers as of early January.

** Some districts that requested waivers hadn't cited "financial hardship" as a reason, including Houston, the state's largest school district, which had received waivers for 441 grade levels over 146 campuses, and Austin, which had received waivers for 18 grade levels in 16 elementary schools.

** Some districts exclusively cited the "financial hardship" reason in their requests, including Dallas, which had received exceptions for 45 grade levels on 34 campuses, and Bexar County's Northside, which had received waivers for 150 grade levels on 63 campuses.

Our ruling

Reyes accurately recaps how many districts had requested class-size waivers from the state education agency as of late December 2011 — a number that subsequently grew. Yet, his suggestion that financial difficulties born from the 2011 Legislature’s actions are responsible for all of the waiver requests is an overstatement, considering that historically, dozens of districts have sought and received waivers each year.

Then again, 60 percent of districts that had received a waiver as of early January cited the new "financial hardship" reason when seeking permission to exceed the class-size law. We rate Reyes' statement Half True.

Our Sources

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, news release, "Rick Perry seeks votes while Texas schools suffer," Jan. 9, 2012

PolitiFact Texas, Truth-O-Meter article, "Arne Duncan says class sizes in Texas have grown massively," Aug. 19, 2011

Texas Education Agency, report, "Regional and District Level Report," Dec. 1, 2008

Texas Education Agency, report, "Regional and District Level Report," Dec. 1, 2010

Legislative Reference Library, House Bill 72, 68th Legislature, second called session (see page 154) (accessed Jan. 11, 2012)

Texas Education Code, Sec. 25.112, "Class Size" (accessed Jan. 11, 2012)

Interview with Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman, Texas Education Agency, Jan. 10, 2012

El Paso Times, news article, "4 area districts seek waivers for class sizes to save money," Jan. 3, 2012

Texas Education Agency, form, "2011-2012 Request for Maximum Class Size Exception"

Email from Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman, Texas Education Agency, Jan. 18, 2012 (waiver statistics, as of Jan. 10, 2012)

Texas Education Agency, spreadsheet, "Class size exceptions approved as of Jan. 10, 2012," received Jan. 13, 2012

Texas Education Agency, spreadsheet, "class size exceptions ‘other’ as of Jan. 10, 2012," received Jan. 13, 2012

Texas Education Agency, website for generating reports with waiver data (accessed Jan. 29, 2012)

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Meghan Ashford-Grooms

Silvestre Reyes says says 282 Texas school districts requested class-size waivers because of 'unprecedented fiscal challenges'

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