By Emily Grobe
For Reporting Texas
Despite an enrollment increase of more than 76,000 students at Texas public schools this past year, the number of state teachers and teacher’s aides declined by more than 15,000, a cut of more than 3 percent. School officials say the conflicting trends, the result of the state’s $5.4 billion in cuts to public education, are putting even more strain on their ability to provide quality education.
With additional revenue unlikely to be added in the next year’s legislative session, the reduction of teachers could become the norm for Texas schools.
“I do not see staffing picking up based on continued political winds calling for no additional revenue,” said Tom Canby, the director of research and technology for the Texas Association of School Business Officials.
“Budget cuts have been a setback to the progress that many districts have made,” said Superintendent Andrew Kim of the Manor Independent School District.
For instance, the Keller school district is facing a projected budget deficit of more than $1.4 million for the 2012-13 school year while an additional 400 students have registered in the district. Keller’s board is considering dipping into its reserve funds to keep teachers in place.
Come fall, College Station is considering adding an additional class to its teachers’ instructional day to accommodate its increased enrollment.
Manor’s enrollment has risen by more than 1,100 students since the 2008-09 school year. In contrast to harder hit districts in the state, the district found the money to hire teachers but not enough to keep class sizes within the state-mandated student-teacher ratio of 22:1.
More than ever, Manor has petitioned the state for waivers to increase class sizes. “We applied for 44 class-size waivers,” Kim said of this year’s request, up from 4 requests the previous year.
Manor copes with other challenges as well. Of its current student enrollment of 7,723 students, 80.7 percent are considered economically disadvantaged, making state budget cuts harder to deal with due to the higher cost of remedial education needed for low-income students who may not have resources at home.
“These cuts come at a time that the portion of public school students from low-income families is at high point for the last decade,” Canby said.
While state cutbacks have forced school districts to belt-tighten in other personnel areas – with more than 34,000 district employees cut statewide – teaching positions were the hardest hit. The number of full time teachers was reduced by 3 percent, or 10,888, to 323,651 for the 2011-12 school year, according to numbers released by the Texas Education Agency. In addition, the number of educational aides, who assist with large classes, tutoring and remediation, individualized instruction and technology integration among other duties, was reduced by 4,861 to 58,034, an almost 8 percent drop.
While Canby wonders how Texas can reduce its number of teachers, whom he calls the state’s greatest asset, Kim said that schools will do their best to provide students with an education. But not without some modifications.
“I think quality is actually better than quantity, so I would sacrifice number [of teachers] for teachers who understand their content and have strong pedagogical, leadership and entrepreneurial skills,” he said.
That approach could be important as schools face the start up of the state’s new accountability system, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test, which went into effect in Spring 2012. The tests, which include end-of-year course exams at the high school level, are considerably more rigorous than previous tests and require more testing days to administer, especially at the high school level. Currently, there are 25 testing days for STAAR’s predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), including exit-level re-testing. STAAR end-of-year tests will require up to 45 testing days when it is fully implemented – nearly doubling the number of days a student spends testing each year.
Still, educators say that school districts have to make due – they have no other choice.
“Having more teachers can impact learning, and that would be ideal,” Kim said. “However, when we have to balance our work with budget cuts … that is not always feasible.”