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Texas Lawmakers Consider Public School Changes

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AUSTIN (AP) - School districts could increase elementary school class sizes and move quicker to dismiss teachers to help ease budget strains under bills being considered Friday by Texas state lawmakers.

The ideas were considered during the regular session but did not pass. They have resurfaced in the special session that convened this week.

Texas lawmakers are pushing toward a $4 billion cut to schools over the next two years and school districts say they need ways to deal with those losses.

One of the bills before the House Public Education Committee on Friday requires state officials to grant waivers for school districts who want to enlarge classes in kindergarten through fourth grade. The current limit is 22 students and has been state law for nearly 30 years.

The proposed change would allow schools to seek waivers to raise the limit to 25 or allow them to average 22 students per class in those grades.

Teacher groups argue smaller class sizes result in better education and oppose trying a broad attempt to raise the limit. The current limit was passed in 1984 in a landmark education law that included no-pass, no-play athletic requirements and created the state’s high school graduation test.

Boosting class size would have the biggest negative impact on poor students and children whose first language is not English, said Ted Molina Raab, spokesman for Texas-American Federation of Teachers.

Rep. Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands, said that while probably a good idea, small class sizes are “one of the most expensive things we do.”

Current law already allows districts to apply for waivers for larger classes if they lack classroom space or can’t find teachers for additional classes. More than 140 school districts received waivers this year for larger classes at more than 500 elementary schools. Currently, waivers expire at the end of the year.

“There’s no need for this bill,” Raab said. “A school district that wants a waiver, needs a waiver, gets a waiver.”

A legislative analysis reported that savings from a class-size change would depend on how many of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts get waivers. Dallas school officials have said greater class size flexibility could save them $5 million a year.

Eissler said his bill creates a cap of 25 students in a class that currently does not exist for schools that receive waivers. And the commissioner of education could reject a waiver if the believes with would have a negative impact on educating students.

The bill also would relax current requirements of notifying parents of a waiver — which sometimes includes public hearings — by allowing districts to post notice on their website.

Teachers also worry that pending budget cuts will lead to tens of thousands of layoffs and are fighting efforts to move them into a shortened appeals process if and when teachers are fired.

School districts say the current process can be a time-consuming and budget-breaking four months. Moving teachers fired for economic reasons into a shorter process for teachers whose contracts are not renewed will save time and money and still allow them to challenge the decision, said Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

The average Texas public school salary is about $48,000. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said the state lures people into teaching in part with good vacation and job benefits, including job protection, instead of seeking better-paying jobs in the private sector.

If the state wants to reduce job protections, it should consider raising teacher salaries, Strama said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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