SCHOOL PATROL: Haslam puts class-size proposal on hold
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says some educators have misunderstood the intent.
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- If it's Thursday, the lesson must be fractions.
Mendy Curtis teaches only one-sixth of all fourth graders who attend Jasper Elementary School in Marion County
But the class holds 25 students, the most Tennessee law allows.
So when word came that Governor Bill Haslam wants lawmakers to change the laws regarding class size;
"We got questions," Schools Director Mark Griffith says. "Let's say you have 25 kindergartners in each of two classes. This bill could, possibly, put them all in one classroom and we were afraid we would have to let one teacher go."
"That's ridiculous," Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says. Huffman was in Chattanooga Thursday, to meet with members of the Rotary Club and the Hamilton County School Board to discuss broad changes to primary and secondary education in the Volunteer State.
His visit comes one day after Governor Haslam announced he was backing off his class-size proposal until next year.
"The Governor has never been out there saying, 'I think there should be bigger classes'," Huffman says. "We never said we were going to lift the maximum class size."
Tennessee law mandates public elementary schools can have no more than 25 students per class.
Huffman says that wouldn't change. Rather, he says, the Governor has proposed eliminating the requirement that a school's 'average class size' (total number of students divided by number of classrooms) be no more than twenty students per class.
"Why would we not trust a local school to decide how they want to staff their classrooms," Huffman asks.
Marion County teachers are skeptical, Dr. Griffith says. Jasper Elementary is so crowded that the principal has converted a janitor's closet into a special education classroom. A back hallway serves as a 'gym' for therapeutic physical education.
"We already are at capacity, about 730 students," Principal Tim Bible says. "If we kept all our faculty, and all of them maxed our the number of students in their classes, we could have 850 kids here."
Not next year. But Dr. Griffith says it's likely soon.
"Because of the uncertainty of funding coming from the State," he says. "We're bracing for slightly less in the B.E.P. (Tennessee's Basic Education Program funding formula), which means local money would have to cover larger portions of our teacher's salaries."
"I think students do better in smaller classes, sure," Hamilton County School Board Chairman Mike Evatt says. "But can we afford that? We can't."
East Brainerd Elementary is but one school in Hamilton County already out of room. Evatt says so many districts in Tennessee are in similar straits that it's not surprising that Gov. Haslam has put his class-size proposal on hold.
"The turmoil it was causing with the teachers," Evatt says. "Right now, teachers have enough on their plate."
The plate includes a challenge to rework teaching and student performance standards, now that Tennessee has won a waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Law.
Governor Haslam also has called upon lawmakers to create ways for districts to establish new performance standards for grading teachers themselves.
Commissioner Huffman maintains that those challenges make the best case for scrapping 'average class size'
"We need to put them (teachers and administrators) in a position where they've got some flexibility," Huffman says. "Flexibility to actually make the decisions that are gonna drive their results based on their community's needs."
Dr. Griffith believes the Haslam Administration should have couched its proposal in those terms, from the beginning.
"Was it sold badly," he says. "Absolutely."