AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Students in smaller public-school classes tend to do better on standardized tests and even eventually become better citizens, more likely to own their own homes and save for retirement, an expert told Texas' sweeping school finance trial Thursday.
Northwestern University economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach testified before state District Judge John Dietz that she could not advocate for a specific student-to-teacher ratio that would improve educational outcomes. But she said that study after academic study shows that smaller classes often mean greater success for students.
More than 600 school districts have sued the state, claiming the way it funds schools is so inefficient and unfair that it violates the Texas Constitution.
Six lawsuits have been rolled into a single case being heard by Dietz. They grew out of the state's Legislature 2011 decision to cut $5.4 billion in funding to schools and educational grant programs, including pre-kindergarten classes.
The state argues that the system is adequately funded and that school districts don't always spend money wisely.
Still, budget cuts have forced many districts to layoff teachers and reduce support staff. That has led to larger classes, and administrators say, the cuts have been especially costly since they came as Texas implements a new and more-difficult standardized testing system.
State law caps the sizes of kindergarten through fourth-grade classes at 22 students per teacher, though districts can seek waivers allowing some classes to exceed that limit.
Whitmore Schanzenbach testified that between 90 and 150 districts request waivers in an average year but that more than 280 did so in 2011-12. She said she thought it was "unwise policy" to impose tougher standards while increasing class sizes.
"I would predict that test scores will be worse, and that will be especially true for low-income students," she said. "And that other life outcomes, such as criminal behavior, will be affected."
Whitmore Schanzenbach pointed to a 1970s Tennessee study that followed randomly selected students in classes with average sizes of 15 pupils from kindergarten through third grade. After that, they were returned to regular-size classes. Those kids were compared to a control group whose average class size was about 23 students.
She said researchers found that students who had been in the smaller classes improved their scores on standardized tests by an average of 6 percentile points, and that black and economically disadvantaged students saw even greater gains.
Whitmore Schanzenbach said that between fourth and eighth grade, kids who had been in smaller classes continued to outscore other students and, as teenagers, they were less likely to have committed crimes or become pregnant.
The students in that study are now in their 30s and have been found to be more likely to have gone to college and graduated. They are also more likely to have majored in lucrative fields, saved for retirement, be homeowners and be married. She said other major studies have yielded similar results.
Whitmore Schanzenbach was cross-examined by Chris Diamond, an attorney for a group of plaintiffs pushing for expanded school choice and more efficiency in Texas schools. He asked how big Whitmore Schanzenbach's largest class was at Northwestern. "It was 35," she said, "but that was before my midterm. Now it's about 28."
Assistant Texas Attorney General Nicole Bunker Henderson asked Whitmore Schanzenbach if she was testifying that "small classes were required by the Texas Constitution."
"I'm not a constitutional expert by any means," Whitmore Schanzenbach said.