Ge­or­gia schools face a class strug­gle

The Covington News - - Front page -

One by one, the mem­bers of the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion voted last week to de­cide one of the most im­por­tant is­sues they will ever face as they make pol­icy for Ge­or­gia’s pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

Af­ter dis­cussing the mat­ter for half an hour dur­ing a con­fer­ence call, the board mem­bers voted 9-2 to elim­i­nate all re­stric­tions on the num­ber of stu­dents that can be put into one class­room. For at least the next school year, and prob­a­bly for sev­eral years af­ter that, lo­cal school boards can put 35, 40 or 50 stu­dents in a class if they choose.

“We wouldn’t have the author­ity to tell them no,” state school Supt. Kathy Cox con­ceded.

Cox pro­posed the elim­i­na­tion of max­i­mum lim­its on class size as a re­sponse to the mas­sive spend­ing re­duc­tions for pub­lic schools. Ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing has been re­duced by more than $900 mil­lion in the state bud­get for the up­com­ing fis­cal year. Over the past six years, the com­bined cut­backs in state fund­ing to lo­cal school sys­tems to­tals nearly $3 bil­lion.

“We don’t have any choice – we didn’t give them enough money,” Cox told the board mem­bers. “We only are giv­ing school sys­tems enough money to op­er­ate for 147 days and telling them they have to op­er­ate 180 days. There’s got to be some give here.”

The board’s vote, more than any­thing else, rep­re­sented a fi­nal vic­tory for Gov. Sonny Per­due in his lon­grun­ning po­lit­i­cal feud with Roy Barnes, the man Per­due de­feated in the 2002 gover­nor’s race.

Dur­ing his one term as gover­nor, Barnes signed an ed­u­ca­tion re­form pack­age that was based on the premise that re­duc­ing class sizes would grad­u­ally im­prove the per­for­mance of Ge­or­gia’s stu­dents and teach­ers.

Per­due dis­agreed with that no­tion and has said that smaller class sizes may help stu­dents in grades K-3, but don’t have much im­pact at the higher grade lev­els. Since he took of­fice in 2003, Per­due has pro­posed and the Leg­is­la­ture has passed sev­eral bills that de­layed the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the smaller class sizes re­quired by the ed­u­ca­tion re­form act.

The Board of Ed­u­ca­tion mem­bers who voted to do away with all re­stric­tions on class size were all ap­pointed to the board by Per­due dur­ing his ten­ure as gover­nor.

Barnes, who’s run­ning for gover­nor again this year, lamented the board’s de­ci­sion.

“They should be ashamed,” Barnes said. “Fur­lough­ing and lay­ing off teach­ers and al­low­ing the dras­tic in­creases in class sizes while pro­vid­ing fund­ing for spe­cial in­ter­est tax breaks and fish­ing ini­tia­tives is not just a fail­ure in lead­er­ship, it is a fail­ure in the ba­sic re­spon­si­bil­ity of state govern­ment.

Class size is like the min­i­mum wage is­sue. You can find aca­demic ex­perts who will as­sert that smaller class sizes are a good thing, just as you can find ex­perts who will swear that ex­actly the op­po­site is true. The ar­gu­ment over class sizes will go on for years among our po­lit­i­cal fac­tions.

Sim­ple arith­metic does tell us this. Take a teacher who is nor­mally re­spon­si­ble for 28 stu­dents in a class­room. Have the lo­cal school board raise that num­ber of stu­dents to 35 by vot­ing for larger class sizes.

That teacher now has 25 per­cent more stu­dents to teach, which means that he or she has 25 per­cent less time to de­vote to each stu­dent who has a ques­tion or prob­lem that re­quires ex­tra at­ten­tion. That teacher has 25 per­cent more tests to grade and 25 per­cent more home­work as­sign­ments to check.

That teacher will also be get­ting a zero per­cent pay raise for han­dling this 25 per­cent in­crease in the daily work­load.

“Fi­nances are one thing, but at some point you’ve got to say, enough’s enough,” said Jeff Hub­bard, pres­i­dent of the Ge­or­gia As­so­ci­a­tion of Ed­u­ca­tors. “If you put 35, 36, 38 stu­dents to­gether in one class­room, you’re go­ing to have some kids fall through the cracks.”

Who knows? Maybe Per­due is cor­rect and class size re­ally doesn’t mat­ter when it comes to ed­u­cat­ing our stu­dents. We will have a chance to test this propo­si­tion dur­ing the up­com­ing school year.

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