(Updated by me at 10:30 Monday night with interviews with local systems, experts)
The state Board of Education voted Monday to lift all limits on class sizes over the next year in response to the deepening school budget crisis that has already forced thousands of teacher layoffs, the loss of music and arts programs and shorter school years in some Georgia districts.
Described as an emergency response to a worsening financial climate, The 9-2 vote means that Georgia school districts can raise class size by 5five, 10, 15 students — or as many students as they choose — without seeking a waiver from the board or the Department of Education.
The vote essentially guts the prevailing state rules that mandated 23 students or fewer in k-3 and 28 in grades 4-8.
“I want to understand — we are giving school boards the right to decide in any class, in any grade and in any subject matter the ability to have any class size they want?” asked state board member James E. Bostic Jr.
Yes, said state school Superintendent Kathy Cox. “We wouldn’t have the authority to tell them no.”
Entrusted with this new freedom, local school boards can be counted on to act responsibly and not to raise class sizes to levels where students suffer, said Cox.
In the metro Atlanta area, counties contacted Monday said they have no intentions of suddenly supersizing their classes.
“We have got to trust the local school boards are going to do right by their students and by student achievement,” Cox said after a board member balked at eliminating all caps on class size.
Cox pointed out that state funding to schools has been cut by nearly $1 billion by the Legislature in the past year. “We don’t have a choice. We didn’t give them enough money.” “We are not providing the resources for local systems to conduct business as usual.”
But board member Linda M. Zechmann countered that parents and schools expect the state Board of Education to set limits and that the board was abdicating its oversight role in removing any ceiling on how many students can be in a classroom.
“In my experience in the field, people rely on us for boundaries,” she told her fellow board members.
In August, the state board approved a policy allowing school systems to raise class size by two students in k-8 classrooms. However, if a school district wanted a larger increase or wanted to raise class sizes in high schools, it had to seek a waiver from the board, and 106 systems have done so in the past nine months. The waiver process required state Department of Education employees to review the district’s request and performance data and make a recommendation to the board, which Cox described as too time-consuming during a period when cash-strapped districts need to be able to act quickly and decisively on their budgets.
Zechmann offered a motion that would allow schools to raise class sizes only by 20 percent, but it was defeated by her colleagues who felt that any limits would only aggravate already frustrated systems.
“It’s just for one year, one year,” said board member Brian K. Burdette. “We can’t say we are going to give systems more flexibility and then tie their hands.”
The vote represents a setback to an ambitious plan initiated a decade ago to reduce Georgia’s class sizes. In 1998, kindergartens housed 27 children and fourth grade had 33 students. Georgia brought those numbers down considerably, capping kindergarten at 22 students and fourth grade at 28.
Metro counties contacted Monday said they have no intentions of suddenly supersizing their classes.
In the Atlanta area, here’s a look at what school district representatives said Monday after the vote:
* City of Atlanta: “The district’s budget for FY11 has already been developed and approved by the School Board. It includes slight increases in average class sizes for all grade levels, but the resultant class sizes remain within state limits. The district does not anticipate having to use the state’s recent lessening of class size restrictions option at this point,” said spokesman Keith Bromery.
* Clayton County: “As of today, the only class-size change Clayton County Public Schools is planning to implement for 2010-11 is increasing our kindergarten class size from 23 to 25 students. Each kindergarten classroom will be staffed by a teacher and a paraprofessional,” said Clayton schools spokesman Charles White.
* Cobb County: “In Cobb, we anticipated the need to increase class sizes for the coming school year and planned accordingly by seeking waivers last fall and earlier this spring,” said Cobb schools spokesman Jay Dillon. “We do not anticipate a need to increase class sizes further than what we’ve already requested. In fact, after a preliminary review of our current status and the allotment of teachers for next school year, we are confident that the worst fears about overflowing classrooms will not happen in Cobb. Many classes will see a marginal increase of two or three, and in some cases four of five students, but we don’t foresee any overflowing classrooms or unmanageable situations.”
* DeKalb County: “Our budget is already set, and we are raising class sizes by two students,” said DeKalb schools spokesman Dale Davis. “We will take this new state policy under advisement.”
* Fayette County: “We will not take advantage of the new rule for increasing class sizes. We have already set our class sizes to the rule that was implemented last year,” said Fayette schools spokeswoman Melinda Berry-Dreisbach.
* Fulton County: “We have no plans to go to the board and say that we have been given carte blanche now and let’s raise class size even higher,” said Fulton schools spokeswoman Allison Toller. Fulton parents can expect class sizes of 23 or less in the early grades and 30 students starting in fourth, she said. However, if the system was faced with one or two students arriving last minute and pushing class sizes beyond those limits, Toller said Fulton then might take advantage of the new flexibility.
* Gwinnett County: Under a flexibility contract, Gwinnett is not affected by the state board policy as it sets its own class sizes. (The system has announced plans to raise class size next year by one student.)
Georgia is not alone in its abandonment of class size ideals in the face of a depleted state coffers. Over the weekend, 35,000 people showed up at the New Jersey Statehouse to protest the governor’s plan to increase class sizes there. In the Los Alamitos Unified School District in California, the schools are asking parents to donate $225 per child to prevent a jump in class sizes. Texas, which was one of the first states to mandate strict class sizes, is considering getting rid of its 25-year-old standards.
And there is a district-led campaign in Florida to revise a 2002 constitutional amendment capping class sizes at 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school. The law was being phased in, and districts were supposed to be in full compliance this year.
One of the arguments being made in Texas and Florida is that there is no strong evidence that the expensive, smaller classes lead to improved student performance.
“Teachers and parents and even students are big fans of smaller class sizes, but the research is really not as supportive,” says Susan Walker, policy and research director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. Research shows the benefits of smaller class size in kindergarten and first grade, says Walker, “but once you get past that, there is really no evidence that it makes a positive impact on student achievement.” More critical in those upper grades is teacher quality, she says.
University of Georgia language and literacy education professor Peter Smagorinsky offered another view: “From the standpoint of an ex-English teacher in three high schools, I can say that the more students you have, the less time you can spend on any one student. Do the math: If you have 120 students [which is a relatively low load] and spend one minute on each every day, that’s two hours of work outside class. Add 50 or 80 more students, and the problem becomes more acute. Now consider the teaching and grading of writing. Let’s say that you spend 15 minutes grading each student essay. That’s 30 hours of grading for 120 students; add 50 more and it’s a whole bunch more.”
I am torn on this decision. I understand that local systems need flexibility but I think the current requirement that class size waivers go through the state causes systems to think carefully before increasing a kindergarten class to 28 kids.
The counter argument is that it should be up to local boards and communities whether they can live with a 28-student kindergarten class, not the state board of education. The deluge of requests for waivers was also taking hundreds of hours of DOE staff time.
I would like to invite state school superintendent candidates to weigh in on this important issue.