SC educators fear proposal to lift cap on class sizes

jself@thestate.comOctober 8, 2013 

School Desks

School desks

DIANE DIEDERICH

— When fifth-grade teacher Lindsay Egloff had “28, 29, 30 students” in her class, she felt “overwhelmed.”

“As an educator, my biggest concern is meeting the students’ needs,” said Egloff, who works at Drayton Hall Elementary in Charleston County where she now has 24 students in a class. The “small-group instruction you want to provide as a teacher loses it’s focus when there are too many kids.”

Egloff and educator groups fear a state Department of Education proposal to eliminate caps on class sizes, except in special education, is taking too far the department’s goal of giving districts hiring flexibility.

“Districts need as much flexibility as they can have,” said Molly Spearman, S.C. Association of School Administrators director. But, she said, “You can go too far either way. You can be under-regulated or you can be over-regulated.”

State schools chief Mick Zais is asking the S.C. Board of Education to consider striking parts of a regulation defining student-teacher ratios and staffing requirements for K-12 public schools. A subcommittee of the board will discuss the proposal Wednesday but the full board will not vote on the plan until next month, said David Blackmon, board chairman.

The topic has become politicized, with state Rep. Mike Anthony of Union, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Zais in 2014, criticizing Zais’ proposal as “misguided” and “dangerous.”

Zais told The State on Tuesday he wants to “empower local school boards” to hire educators based on local needs. While some schools need more teachers for gifted programs, others need more reading coaches or music teachers, he said. “One size just does not fit all.”

Some of the regulations also are redundant, he said, because they are in state and federal law already. The proposal also would clear from the books regulations already suspended by the S.C. General Assembly every year since 2009, Zais said.

Wanting to give school districts relief during the Great Recession, the General Assembly allowed school districts to suspend professional staffing ratios, except in pre-kindergarten and special-education programs, as long as districts spent from 65 percent to 75 percent, depending on the year, of their budgets on teaching.

Zais said suspending the rules governing class sizes has not harmed public education.

“We’ve received no complaints from principals, parents or legislators about staffing ratios,” he said.

In the field, teachers have experienced growing class sizes, said Patrick Hayes, a Charleston schoolteacher and director of EdFirstSC, a teacher-advocacy group.

“We’ve seen the consequences of those type of ratios, and the thought that they (the state Board of Education) would extend them is horrifying,” he said.

The current regulation – parts of which were suspended by the General Assembly – sets student-teacher ratios for schools and districts. It also requires schools with more than 375 students to have a full-time principal. Based on their enrollment, schools also are required to have a certain number of guidance counselors, and art, music and physical education teachers.

The proposal would eliminate those requirements from state education regulations.

State board chairman Blackmon said some districts now use the staffing requirements to get permission from county councils or legislative delegations to raise more tax revenue, he said. Lifting the regulations could open the door for those districts to be pressured to increase class sizes or eliminate staff, he said.

Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Boards Association, agreed. “If we threw out all the standards, our concern would be that districts would lose some control over the ability to set their budget.”

Lifting cap on class sizes

S.C. Department of Education officials say some of the regulations it is proposing to eliminate are covered in state law or were suspended by the S.C. General Assembly. The proposal would eliminate redundancy or remove the regulations permanently, those officials say. The proposed changes would remove staffing requirements for:

•  A full-time principal in schools with more than 375 students

•  An assistant principal or curriculum coordinator in schools with 600 or more students

•  Full-time guidance counselors and specialists in art, music and physical education, based on the number of students enrolled. Current law provides minimum staffing requirements for some, but not all, of these positions, opponents of the proposal say.

Editor's note: This story was updated to remove an error in reporting of the impacts of the proposed regulation change on pre-kindergarten class sizes. Those class sizes are governed by a separate regulation and would not change.

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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