Education Dept. opposes bill to limit classroom sizes

By The Star Staff

The island Education Department on Thursday opposed Senate Bill 44, which would establish a maximum number of students per classroom due to lack of funding.

The officials spoke at a public hearing of the Education, Tourism and Culture Committee chaired by Popular Democratic Party Sen. Ada García Montes.

“As a teacher who [has worked in] the ED [Education Department], I recognize that for us teachers, being able to have a lower classroom enrollment is necessary and appropriate to improve the results of the education we impart and make it more effective,” García Montes said. “Our country is experiencing an unprecedented historical moment; we are facing a [new] school [year] that promises great curricular and infrastructure challenges.”

Félix Pérez, an official at the department’s Complaints Division, said on behalf of acting Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés that the bill as drafted will have an adverse impact on the department.

“First, the implementation of a measure like this would represent an indeterminate budgetary impact for the department’s coffers,” he said.

Likewise, he maintained that the budget of each school is made, among other aspects, in accordance with the number of students per classroom.

“Disrupting this element, imposing a maximum number of students per classroom, would imply that the department would have to provide more classrooms, and therefore, spend a larger budget at each school,” Pérez said. “The measure does not contemplate a budgetary allocation to be able to comply with its execution, if it becomes law.”

Senate Bill 44 would establish a maximum of students per classroom broken down from pre-kindergarten to third grade of 12 students per classroom; from fourth to sixth grade of 13 students; from seventh to ninth of 14 students and from 10th to 12th of 15 students.

The committee chairwoman asked the department about the number of students per classroom suitable for the agency. Wendy Colón, special assistant to the department secretary, said that the school organization administrative memo issued in May is being applied.

“Using the formula of about 16 students or less for pre-kindergarten; 25 or fewer students in kindergarten through third; 30 students or less from fourth to 12th and 25 students in specialized schools from kindergarten to 12th,” Colón said.

Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago questioned officials about the number of students per classroom and clarified that the “average number of students is not 11, there are groups of 20, 25 and 30 students per classroom.”

In addition, the legislator maintained that this is a measure that can not only be seen from a budgetary point of view.

Colón acknowledged that “there are more students than required by the DE in a classroom, the school makes the request to the educational region and later, to human resources [in the event that the group has to be divided].” Likewise, she stressed that there is a limited number of certified teachers and part of the appointment process is slow and no candidates with the necessary qualifications are showing up.

Meanwhile, Teachers Federation President Mercedes Martínez endorsed the measure and insisted that “the reduction of students per classroom is currently more necessary than ever, if we want to do justice to our students, who have seen their educational process interrupted by natural disasters, the pandemic and a government that could not guarantee the student body technological equipment, or free internet access from March to December 2020.”

Allowing in times of a pandemic to have up to 28 students in a classroom, from first grade to third grade, and up to 30 students from fourth grade to 12th grade, is extremely dangerous, Martínez said.

Roberto Rivera, director of Legislative Affairs of the Office of Management and Budget, recognized the merits of the measure but said the fiscal impact it could have is undetermined.

“By reducing [the number of] students in classrooms, it would cause an increase in the number of teachers, classrooms, educational services and, in the case of those who belong to the Special Education Program, the increase could be even more since they require specialized and additional services,” Rivera pointed out to the committee.

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