Local educators are not convinced that proposed changes in state rules covering critical issues such as class size, teacher workload and certification requirements won’t hurt their ability to teach students.
The State Department of Education has been on the defensive in recent weeks, claiming the changes wouldn’t negatively affect what’s currently happening in schools.
R 43-205, as it’s known, is a rather long document that contains sections with titles like “Professional Personnel Qualifications and Duties” for principals and “Professional Personnel Workload” for classroom teachers, guidance counselors, media specialists and more.
Under changes proposed by state education superintendent Mick Zais, entire sections would be removed or reduced significantly.
Zais maintains that eliminating certain requirements – including those capping the size of an elementary school music class at 40 students or requiring a middle school with 400 or more students to employ a full-time library media specialist – would allow school districts “greater flexibility.”
York Superintendent Vernon Prosser, says he already has all the flexibility he needs. He’s more worried about slipping standards.
“I like flexibility,” he said. “But at the same time, you still need to have some kind of bar so there is a standard for staffing schools.”
Rock Hill school board member Ginny Moe said the only “flexibility” school officials have seen is the ability to increase class sizes, not decrease them, because school districts do not have enough money.
Jane Sharp, another Rock Hill school board member and a former principal, questioned in a recent blog post who exactly would benefit from the “flexibility” Zais is proposing – because it doesn’t appear to be students, teachers or administrators.
When crafting their annual budgets, Prosser said, most school districts begin by figuring out how much money they will need to operate by using the staff-to-student ratio listed in R 43-205.
“Two-thirds of our budget comes from the state,” he said. “If our ratios go away, does the funding go with it?”
Zais points out that lawmakers have suspended existing staffing ratios for the last four years, so eliminating them would simply condense regulatory language, not create new policy.
“During this time, we have not seen a single instance of a school board or superintendent using this freedom to act in an irresponsible way,” Zais wrote in a letter to the editor responding to an Oct. 7 opinion column by Chester County art teacher Curtis LeMay.
The Department of Education holds that no districts have dramatically increased their class sizes as a result of the rules suspensions.
LeMay wrote in his column for The Herald that he was concerned that the proposed changes would make it more difficult to teach. He said Friday that his classes – which often have as many as 40 students – already can be tough to manage under current regulations.
“At that point, it’s not teaching anymore, it’s crowd control,” LeMay said. “It shortchanges my students.”
And while the number of students continues to increase, he said, there’s been no corresponding increase in budgets. LeMay gets $250 for an entire semester of art supplies and is worried making these changes to R 43-205 will lead to further state education cuts.
“If you eliminate the class-size caps, the certification requirements, the staff requirements and all of that,” he said, “you the give the (Legislature) an excuse to say, ‘Well, why not cut funding even further?’”
R 43-205 has associations with another important element of South Carolina public schools: their accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges in Schools. Many standards the schools must meet are directly tied to R 43-205, Prosser said.
Prosser questioned the origin of the proposed changes.
“Superintendents were not invited, or at least I wasn’t,” he said. “This came from the state Department of Education to the (state) school board.”
Some members of the state Board of Education expressed deep reservations last week about Zais’ plan.
“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,” said state board member Michael Brenan of Columbia.
The S.C. School Boards Association, teacher advocacy groups and others also have challenged the proposed changes, which will come up for more discussion in November.
Prosser said regulation changes might be needed, but he worries about cutting back too much, especially with the implementation of Common Core standards and the importance of guidance counselors, principals and other educators in the lives of students.
“Just to strike (regulations) without a plan in place, that’s not an effective way to go,” Prosser said. “In some places, it could be taking a step backward instead of a step forward.”
Rachel Southmayd • 803-329-4072