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Haslam's Bad Idea--Larger Class SizesPosted Thursday, February 9, 2012, at 7:35 AM
Originally run in the Commercial Appeal 2/08/12
It's your daughter's first day of kindergarten. She's excited, but also scared to be leaving Mom and Dad. You tell her it will be all right, that her teacher will take care of her and that she'll make lots of new friends.
But as you open that classroom door, you're shocked to see dozens of other children, all going through the same emotions as your daughter. Some are crying, some are yelling and several are trying to run out of the room. You wonder how your daughter will get the attention she needs from her teacher, who will struggle simply to find space for everyone. Suddenly, you're feeling the same nerves as your daughter -- but for an entirely different reason.
A proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam would permit public school districts in Tennessee to create classes with larger numbers of children and, as a result, would decrease the individual attention our children receive from their teachers. The plan could also result in thousands of teacher layoffs, unbearable financial burdens on local governments and a reversal of the progress we have made in our schools.
We support the governor's efforts to enact meaningful reform and provide the education our children deserve. That's why we passed Tennessee's Race to the Top legislation two years ago, enabling our public schools to measure performance, better train teachers and support innovative ideas.
But the governor has made a mistake by pushing this year to allow larger class sizes in elementary and middle schools, a move that members of his own party have opposed. Removing the state's average class-size requirement means schools would put more students in every classroom, while laying off thousands of teachers at a time when we need them the most.
Currently, the state-mandated average class size for grades K-3 and grades 7-8 is 20 students, with the maximum number of students allowed in any class set at 25. Some classrooms may have the maximum number of students, but any school's average class size must be at or below 20 students. (In grades 4-6, the average class size is set at 25 students and the maximum number of students allowed in any class is 30.)
Right now, the state bases its teacher funding on the average class size, funding one teacher's position for every 20 students in grades K-3 and 7-8. Under the administration's proposal, however, funding would be based on the maximum class size, meaning one teaching position would be funded for every 25 students in those grades..
In Memphis City Schools, the state currently pays for 3,221 teachers. Under the new proposal, only 2,641 teachers would be funded, leaving 580 jobs to be funded completely by the local school district. Those positions would be in addition to 505 teachers whose salaries are already paid solely with Memphis tax dollars.
Memphis City Schools officials would have to do one of two things to meet their budget: seek an increase in taxes or lay off teachers. The same is true for other school systems across Tennessee, as nearly 5,300 teaching jobs would be cut from state education dollars. Our local governments should not be put in the position of having to choose between taking money from our families or teachers from our children.
Nearly three decades ago, a study funded by the state legislature found that smaller class sizes make a significant difference in a child's education, especially in early grades and among students from low-income households. The study prompted at least 24 states to put into place class-size restrictions or incentives.
Now, several of those states are raising class sizes to balance their budgets, and the administration wants to follow the same path. In Tennessee, however, we have a balanced budget, and we have lived within our means. Raising class sizes is not only a bad idea, it's unnecessary. We didn't win the Race to the Top by doing what everyone else was doing. We won because we promised to do what no one else would -- and we promised to do it together. Putting more children into already overcrowded classrooms would break that promise. At a time when we need the best ideas in education, this isn't one of them.
Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley is Democratic Leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis is vice chairman of the state Senate Education Committee.
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