When King Laurence taught fifth grade in the 1980s, he worked with 33 students every day.
Decades later, the maximum classroom size is about 27 to 1 teacher, “and those six or seven students less make a big a difference,” he said.
Mick Zais, the state superintendent of education, recently proposed significant changes that, in part, would allow individual school districts the flexibility to increase the number of students in a classroom – beyond the maximums now based on grade and subject areas. In addition, he suggested other changes that could affect how assistant principals, guidance counselors and even principals are reduced in numbers within schools in some situations.
Given the lack of enthusiasm from some State Board of Education members and many educators throughout the state, Zais' proposals probably won't get very far. Even if they did move forward, the Aiken County School Board wouldn't have to pursue such flexibility.
Board member Dwight Smith, a retired Gloverville Elementary School principal, expressed his concern at a Board meeting Tuesday.
Substantial hikes in classroom numbers “would not be healthy for educators and their students,” Smith said. “It could open the door, and the fear for me is the long-term funding issues that could dictate to us what we would have to do to conform to any new regulations.”
In recent years, the S.C. General Assembly has annually authorized school districts to receive waivers that are similar to Zais' proposals. But they were introduced in the midst of the recession that began in 2008 – providing districts more specific ways to avoid laying off more employees than they had previously.
Flexibility can offer ways to best manage schools, said Dr. Beth Everitt, the Aiken County superintendent. Yet class size and other considerations must provide at least a minimally adequate education as the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 1999.
“Clearly the size of classes does matter,” said Everitt. “My concern is that to reduce the budget, we'll have people trying to force us to have larger class sizes, which could be a detriment to the quality of instruction.”
For many years in the past, the School Board worked hard to reduce class size, said Board member Keith Liner. Again, the 2008 recession had a major impact, leading to the School Board's reluctant decision to increase the student to teacher ratio.
“We had to do cuts in the 2009-10 budget,” Liner said, “eliminating all that hard work to limit classroom size. This (proposal) could further hamper that effort, and as a political issue, give other districts an excuse to do it.”
Zais' proposed regulation changes could be too broad “and as a result, have the potential to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Scott Price, the S.C. School Board Association's general counsel, told members of the State Board Policy and Legislative Committee this week. In a copy of his remarks provided by the association, Price said the proposals could provide some positive flexibility, “but they also could have unintended consequences if we don't take a more measured approach.”
The Aiken Board members are expected to bring up the issue on Tuesday – considering the possibility of sending letters or a resolution to the Aiken County Legislative Delegation and perhaps the State Board of Education.
Laurence expressed confidence that the Aiken School Board would “do the right thing” in protecting students with appropriate student to teacher ratios. Again, another serious economic situation could lead to a shift in philosophy.
However, there's another factor to consider, said Ray Fleming, the School Board's vice chairman.
“There are elements in our state looking for privatization,” he said. “They try to cut funding, and this is a way of doing that. This is one of these things where open discussion is needed to get it out on the table.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.