Teachers: Don’t lift cap on class size S.C.’s plans draw criticism statewide

Anna Bowden (center) reads out loud into a microphone during a class reading lesson at Pinckney Elementary School Thursday October 3, 2013. Grace Beahm/Staff

— Fifth-graders’ desks in Vicki Robertson’s class are arranged in clusters for two reasons: It’s easier for students to do group work, and it gives her 29 students more space to move around the room.

That’s one of the adjustments the Pinckney Elementary teacher has made to accommodate her large classes. She has 30 students in one English lesson, which is the maximum allowed by state regulation.

So what does Robertson think about the state potentially eliminating the cap on the size of some classes statewide?

“Oh wow! I’m making it work with the space I have,” she said. “But when you have more students, they have more needs and challenges.”

The state Board of Education is considering a sweeping set of changes that would affect the maximum and average number of students assigned to teachers’ classes.

State officials say the proposal would give more flexibility and control to local districts, but educators statewide are pushing back. They want local control but say this change would hurt teachers and students.

“What we’ve seen in the past is when flexibility is granted, it’s used,” said Patrick Hayes, a third-grade teacher in Charleston County and leader of EdFirstSC, an education advocacy group. “We’re not hearing that argument (that it’s better for teachers or kids) being made, and I don’t think it can be made.”

If approved, the changes could go into effect as soon as the 2014-15 school year.

This issue came up as S.C. Department of Education officials were reviewing all the regulations that govern schools. State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais is a big supporter of flexibility, and he wanted to see whether they could revise existing rules to give districts more freedom.

For example, the state board’s regulations require fourth- and fifth-grade English and math teachers to have no more than 30 students in their classrooms. So if a couple more students came in the middle of the year, the school would have to add a teacher or else would be out of compliance with state accreditation requirements.

“The flexibility is looking at not having hard-and-fast ratios,” said Roy Stehle, director of the Education Department’s Office of Federal and State Accountability. “It is about giving districts the flexibility in terms of staffing to make adjustments as they need to make adjustments.”

If approved, the maximum class size would be non-existent for certain subjects and grades, such as in prekindergarten, fourth- and fifth-grade and some special areas, such as music and physical education.

State law still would govern maximums in other areas, such as no more than 28 students in first- through third-grade classes. The proposal also would do away with some of the staffing ratios for media specialists, guidance counselors, assistant principals and principals.

The General Assembly for the past four years has passed a proviso that allowed districts to exempt themselves from certain state-required class ratios, and this would make that flexibility permanent.

“We have not heard any great cry during the last couple of years that districts have really played with staffing ratios,” Stehle said.

The state appears to have had regulations on class size since at least 1986, and possibly earlier. Research generally has shown a positive link between smaller classes and improved student achievement, but reducing class size doesn’t automatically translate into more learning.

The state board gave initial approval to the state department’s proposal in September, and its policy and legislative committee will discuss the issue again on Wednesday. A second reading will happen in November, and then the changes would go to the Legislature for approval.

Although the S.C. Board of Education passed the proposal on first reading, there’s no guarantee that will happen on second reading, said state board Chairman David Blackmon. And it seems unlikely that it will be approved again.

Blackmon said he voted in favor of the changes so they could be discussed, but he doesn’t agree with them. He compared it to when the West was developing, and the country had open grazing. Ranchers lost livestock, and that’s why they put up fences.

“My concern is if we drop this regulation, we’re taking down all the fences,” he said. “What protections are there for teachers and students when they have more students in the classroom than is reasonable for them to accommodate?”

Regulations can sometimes be over-bearing and intrusive, but districts can request waivers from those, he said.

Board member Mike Brenan is among the board’s most conservative members; Zais is a Republican. But Brenan said he doesn’t support this proposal.

“I’m generally in favor of providing waivers that give school districts flexibility to be innovative, creative and transformative,” he said. “This particular one doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with innovation, creativity and transformation, and I more than likely will vote against it.”

Larry Kobrovsky, a Charleston attorney who represents Berkeley and Charleston counties on the state board, said he’s open-minded. He likes the idea of giving more power to local schools, but he doesn’t want to see that happen at the cost of class-size increase.

“It’s not mandating increasing class size; it’s giving flexibility to those who are closest to the scene,” he said.

Four of the state’s biggest groups representing educators’ interests — the S.C. School Boards Association, EdFirstSC, the S.C. Association of School Administrators and the Palmetto State Teachers Association — have serious concerns with the proposed changes, and don’t want to see them implemented.

“While we support greater flexibility, we have all watched as the airline industry deregulated and the banking industry deregulated,” said Molly Spearman, executive director of the administrators’ association. “You can go too far, and you have to have some quality assurances. We want to ensure high quality for students across the state.”

Another issue involves school boards’ fiscal authority, or their ability to raise taxes, said Scott Price, attorney for the state School Boards Association. Only 26 districts statewide have that kind of power, so some boards use the state-mandated class-size ratios as leverage in developing and requesting that their budgets be approved, he said.

Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said her group supported the proviso allowing class-size flexibility during the recession to save teachers’ jobs, but “this goes too far.”

“We understand the need for flexibility, and we hope that if districts need that, they will go to state board and ask for a waiver,” she said.

Tri-county school leaders say smaller class size is a priority, and Charleston and Dorchester 2 have lower district mandates for class-size maximums than the state. Berkeley County school officials said they meet the state-regulated maximums.

If the proposed regulations were to pass, none of those local leaders said they would increase class sizes.

“The ratios that are in (state law) already are in my view minimally adequate,” said Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley.

Because she likes the idea of flexibility but not eliminating ratios, McGinley said she sees room for compromise. She pointed to the advent of technology and personalized learning with iPads, and she said schools need alternatives on how they deliver instruction.

She suggested more flexibility around grouping students, which could mean putting 80 students in a high school history lecture three days each week, then breaking the same students into smaller groups on the other days for hands-on, project-based learning.

Dorchester 2 Superintendent Joe Pye said class size is teachers’ No. 1 issue, and they care about that even more than their salaries. He supports more flexibility for schools but said “we’ve got to be careful at what point are we allowing people to make bad decisions. You need a safety net in there.”

Sandi Baldwin is the parent of a fourth-grader at Pinckney Elementary, and she said her family moved into the Park West neighborhood so her daughter could attend its high-achieving schools.

Because of high demand and rapid growth, the school’s classes have been among the district’s largest. Her daughter’s class has 27 students, which Baldwin described as sometimes “nuts,” but she said teachers know how to ensure that each child is getting what he or she needs.

She likes the idea of smaller classes and more individual instruction, and she said she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to eliminate class-size standards.

“We live in a great school district that probably has way better standards (than others) ... but it sets a precedent for other counties,” she said. “Are they going to slack off?”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.