The fewer the students in a class, the more teachers like it, the more attention students get and the more parents feel good about their children’s school.
So it is understandable that many are alarmed that the state Department of Education wants to stop dictating how many students can be assigned to teachers in some classes. They fear lest local school boards increase class sizes to save money — to the detriment of children.
It is also understandable, however, that some educators endorse the idea of giving more flexibility to local school systems. They say what is right in Kershaw County might not be right in Colleton. And what is right in one high school might not be right in another.
The two concepts need not be mutually exclusive.
Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley gave a good example to reporter Diette Courrégé Casey:
A faculty might want to put 80 students in a high school history lecture three days a week, then break those students into small groups on the other days for hands-on, project-based learning. The average ratio would not exceed state standards, but the experience for students might be far better than having 35 students in a class five days a week.
Dr. McGinley doesn’t want to see caps eliminated but likes the idea of more flexibility. She said new technology allows more personalized learning, which could be optimized by different class configurations.
The state now dictates the maximum size of classes — from 20 students per teacher in pre-kindergarten to 40 students per teacher in music classes. But since 2009, the Legislature has suspended some of those rules yearly excepting pre-kindergarten and special education.
Superintendent Mick Zais, a proponent of local control, insists the flexibility will be advantageous to districts, allowing them to tailor staffing to meet their individual needs.
But while allowing districts to set their own caps would make it easier for them to try new configurations, it could also allow misguided school boards to increase class size even though research links smaller classes with improved student achievement.
And although some of those limits have been suspended by the Legislature, they are on the books. If districts misuse the flexibility, the Legislature can step in.
Teacher groups, and members of the S.C. Board of Education, point out that existing caps provide necessary protection for students, and that educators who want to exceed the caps may apply to the state for waivers if the Legislature stops suspending the requirements.
Such waivers are probably the best way to handle this very sensitive area.
It would be a huge setback, for example, if classes were to grow as large as they were in the 1950s.
It is important, of course, that the state Department of Education make it convenient for districts to apply for waivers and that it be open to allowing flexibility in appropriate situations.
The state Board of Education initially supported Dr. Zais’ recommendation. But members received hundreds of phone calls, mostly from teachers, and members seem to have changed their minds. For good reason. So the second reading in November might go differently.
Not all districts are like Charleston and Dorchester 2, which maintain lower student-teacher ratios than the state mandates, or like Berkeley County, which says it would not increase class sizes even if allowed to do so.
Keeping the state staffing rules would provide a safety net for students statewide, and would still provide room for waivers if schools have good ideas to pitch.