SC Board of Education cool to plan to allow larger classes

jself@thestate.comOctober 9, 2013 

  • Allow larger classes? What supporters say:

    •  The S.C. General Assembly already has suspended the rules capping class sizes for four years. Why not make the cuts permanent?

    •  Existing law imposes some student-teacher ratios and requires schools to have some staff members already.

    •  The proposal would give school districts more local control, an ongoing goal of State Education Superintendent Mick Zais.

    What opponents say:

    •  The proposal is too sweeping and could have unintended consequences, leading some school districts without strong leadership or those that must request permission from county councils to raise money – feeling pressured to cut teachers or other important positions.

    •  The State Board of Education has a responsibility to set standards defining the quality of education all students should receive.

    The state board should listen to teachers in the field. Those teachers overwhelmingly oppose the plan, board members said.

A plan to allow larger K-12 class sizes and eliminate state rules dictating school staffing may be short-lived – even though S.C. lawmakers have decided to suspend those same rules each year since 2009.

Members of the S.C. Board of Education on Wednesday expressed deep reservations about a state Department of Education plan to remove caps on the number of students that a teacher can have in a class and rules that require schools to have a certain number of principals, guidance counselors and art, music and library teachers.

Michael Brenan of Columbia, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointee on the board, said he always has supported giving districts more local control. “But ... if teachers and administrators and school boards don’t see this as giving them flexibility, if they don’t see this as something that can be transformative or innovative, then it makes it difficult to support.”

Driving the board’s opposition were hundreds of phone calls and emails, mostly educators in the field, board members said.

State schools Superintendent Mick Zais defended the plan. He said the plan, which would add certification requirements for some educators, would not lead to rapidly increasing class sizes, as critics have suggested. Instead, Zais said the plan would let school districts decide class sizes and hire teachers based on their needs – a freedom school districts have had for four years, he said.

The General Assembly, yearly since 2009, has suspended the regulations for all grades except pre-kindergarten and special education.

The caps on how many students a teacher should have and other staffing rules would go back into effect only if the S.C. General Assembly does not suspend them any longer.

Some of the regulations are unnecessary, Zais has said, because they already are covered in existing state and federal law.

But other regulations are not covered by current law – specifically rules that require schools, depending on their size and grade level, to have principals, assistants, guidance counselors, and art, music and library teachers.

Board members said they worried some schools could lose full-time administrators or guidance counselors if districts face budget crunches.

Some board members said they should continue setting a statewide standard for the quality of education all public school students should receive, regardless of whether lawmakers choose to override those rules one year or the next.

“These ratios are an attempt to say this is what a realistic expectation should be for a teacher to be effective,” said board member and chairman-elect Barry Bolen of West Columbia.

Roy Stehle, director of the Education Department’s Office of State and Federal Accountability, said some school districts have increased class sizes, since the Legislature permitted it, but not dramatically. Stehle said a class of 22 students might have been increased to 27 or 28, for example.

The plan comes up for more discussion and a vote in November.

State Board chairman David Blackmon, Bolen and other board members said they oppose the plan, asking how it would benefit students to eliminate the caps.

Relations among the administration of Republican Zais, the state Education Board and educator groups have been tense on occasion. Zais consistently has advocated deregulating schools and shifting decision-making authority to the local level. His critics have said that approach is out-of-touch with schools’ needs.

Several board members did not know about the Legislature’s four-year suspension of the rules and questioned why educator groups were raising concerns now, instead of years ago.

Board member Danny Varat of Greenville said he wondered how many teachers know that districts have been free from class-size limits for four years.

He said the outcry about the regulation change was “confusing” considering educator-advocacy groups typically request more flexibility, and freedom from “unfunded mandates” and requirements on teachers’ time.

“Everybody wants local control until they don’t,” he said, adding state lawmakers need to address the issue.

“Whatever responsibility the state board had on this issue has been usurped by the General Assembly,” Varat said. “I hope they will weigh in some on what they believe is important.”

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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