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By W. Gardner Selby August 19, 2011

Arne Duncan says class sizes in Texas have grown massively

The nation’s education secretary says Texas students have struggled on Gov. Rick Perry's watch.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Al Hunt touching on the new Republican presidential candidate, Arne Duncan said: "Far too few of their high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college. I feel very, very badly for the children there."

Duncan, the former chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, continued: "You have seen massive increases in class size. You’ve seen cutbacks in funding. It doesn’t serve the children well. It doesn’t serve the state well. It doesn’t serve the state’s economy well. And ultimately it hurts the country."

The college-readiness of Texas high school graduates is a rich topic. For instance, The Dallas Morning News, citing a report, noted Aug.ust 17, 2011, that a majority of Texas high school graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam this year lacked the skills to pass introductory college courses in math, reading and science.

Too, the revenue-strapped 2011 Legislature did not provide billions of dollars in state aid to school districts that the schools would have fielded for enrollment growth under existing funding formulas.

We wondered if Duncan was accurate about Texas seeing massive increases in class size.

Some background: A 1984 overhaul of Texas education laws capped the size of classes in kindergarten through fourth grade at 22 students per teacher, though districts were permitted to request waivers. According to the Texas Education Agency, 168 of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts were granted a waiver in 2010-11, a total that has not changed much year to year, according to agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe, who told us most waiver requests are sought for one or two campuses in a district.

This year, Republican legislators made a push to let districts automatically have some classes exceed the limit; it did not pass into law.   

After asking the U.S. Department of Education how Duncan reached his conclusion, we checked Texas class sizes for each school year from 2005-06 — about halfway through Perry’s decade-plus as governor — through 2009-10, the latest year of available data recorded by the state on its Academic Excellence Indicator System.

The annual reports list average class sizes for every elementary grade, including classes combining students from different grades, plus high school classes in English/language arts, foreign languages, mathematics, science and social studies.

We saw little change over those years.

For example, kindergarten classes averaged 19.3 students in 2005-06, bumped up to 19.5 students in 2006-07, then dipped to 18.9 students in 2007-08 before averaging 19 students in 2008-09 and 19.3 students in 2009-10.

Among the grades affected by the 22-1 class-size mandate, fourth-grade classes were the biggest in 2009-10, at 19.9 students. Over the previous four years, fourth-grade classes ranged in size from 19.3 students in 2005-06 to 20.2 students in 2006-07.

Fifth- and sixth-grade classes averaged 21 to 22 students over the five years, while mixed-grade classes averaged up to 25.7 students, in 2005-06.

In 2009-10, high school class sizes ranged from an average of 17.8 students in English/language arts to 20.4 students in social studies. Over the four previous years, the size of the classes averaged 19.6 students to 22.5 students.

So, there was no massive ballooning, the figures suggest, with early elementary classes remaining smaller than required by law.

We wondered if classes were bigger than in 2000-01, the year Perry became governor.

That year, according to the state, classes in kindergarten through fourth grade were slightly smaller, on average, than in 2009-10, with the biggest difference in first grade, which averaged 18.1 students then, 19.1 in 2009-10.

Classes in all but one higher grade, including each of the high school subjects, were larger in 2000-01 than in 2009-10. Mixed-grade classes averaged 23.2 students then, 24.7 students in 2009-10.

By email, Ratcliffe said the state education agency is "perplexed" by Duncan’s claim.

We failed to connect with Duncan, though a spokesman for the Houston school district called us, he said, at the nudging of a Duncan aide. Jason Spencer said the Houston district, which serves about 200,000 students, has not experienced massive class-size increases to date, "but heading into this fall, it’s safe to say we will have an increase in at least some class sizes."

Houston’s teacher workforce is down 400 from last year, Spencer said, even though student enrollment is expected to stay steady. He said the reduction is due to fallout from the state budget. Perry signed that budget into law this summer.

"We are looking at having fewer teachers and a growing student population," Spencer said. "That means a higher student-to-teacher ratio."

It makes sense that the size of some classes could grow as districts adjust to teacher cutbacks.

But Duncan’s statement says classes have already grown massively, a claim contradicted by state figures indicating elementary school classes might be slightly bigger than they used to be — and some high school classes are smaller than they were in earlier years.

We rate the secretary’s claim False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Bloomberg, news article, "Arne Duncan Says Perry’s Schools Left Behind," August 18, 2011

Telephone interview, Debbie Ratcliffe, communications director, Texas Education Agency, August 19, 2011

Telephone interview, Jason Spencer, senior manager for media relations, Houston Independent School District, August 19, 2011

Texas Education, performance reports, Academic Excellence Indicator System, 2009-10, 2008-09, 2007-08, 2006-07, 2000-01 (accessed August 19, 2011)

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