COLUMBIA -- South Carolina lawmakers gave key approval Wednesday to a bill allowing school districts to increase class sizes and furlough teachers to absorb budget cuts, but they added a caveat.
The measure approved by the House gives districts temporary relief from state mandates this school year and next, including maximum ratios of classroom and physical education teachers to students. To get that relief, however, districts must spend at least 65 percent of state money next school year on teachers and other classroom expenses.
"Two out of three dollars going into the classroom is a pretty commonsense thing," said Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, whose wife teaches. "Before you add extra kids to a teacher's classroom, you ought to show you're running an extremely tight ship."
School officials say they need the flexibility to keep classrooms running. Of the $1 billion cut from the state budget since July, nearly $321 million came from the state's 85 school districts.
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"Districts need that out lickety-split," Scott Price, a lobbyist for the state School Boards Association, said of the bill.
The measure requires another perfunctory vote before heading to the Senate, which has proposed a similar bill.
Crawford's proposed amendment Tuesday drew fire from Democrats who argued it didn't make sense to impose a mandate while professing to give districts budget flexibility. Under a compromise, the 65 percent can include spending on school libraries, guidance counselors, student meals and transportation.
"I understand people's concerns. All of us want to make sure they funnel enough money into the classroom," said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, who offered the compromise. "But we all agree those are things that directly affect the classroom."
Crawford said he realizes a more strict measure starts to undermine what schools are required to provide students.
The compromise means all districts should qualify, said state Education Department spokesman Jim Foster.
On average statewide, districts spend 57.5 percent of their budgets on salaries of teachers, aides and substitutes, and classroom supplies. About 14 percent is spent on support services, including guidance, libraries, staff training, school nurses and social workers; 3 percent goes to transportation and 5 percent to food, according to the agency, based on districts' audited 2006-2007 spending.
The bill bars the 65 percent from going to "bureaucratic purposes" but doesn't clarify what that means. Crawford said that should encompass more than administration.
"There will be scrutiny on how districts use the numbers," he said. "If you're using the flexibility, and if you're paying a coach three times the wage of a starting teacher, there have to be answers for that."
Rep. Shannon Erickson, a Beaufort Republican who teaches preschool, tried to cap class-size increases at 20 percent, arguing more crowded classrooms could risk student safety and make it more difficult for teachers to maintain control. Her proposal failed 64-52.
"This allows any district to change their classroom ratios to anything they want to, even if it's 50 first-graders in a classroom," she said.
The average ratio statewide in elementary schools is 22 students per teacher, Foster said. State law sets the maximum at 30-to-1 in kindergarten through sixth grade, and 35-to-1 in seventh through 12th.
Districts collect additional money by keeping elementary classrooms at 15-to-1 or smaller. The bill would give them that incentive money even if they don't meet that requirement, according to the department.
The measure also lets districts forgo buying new textbooks and skip some testing in grades one, two, and nine. It allows districts to require teachers take up to five days of unpaid leave on days students aren't in school, provided administrators also take the furlough. And it lets districts negotiate salaries below the state minimum for retired teachers who had returned to the classroom.