Don’t eliminate class size caps, other state education requirements

October 29, 2013 

State education superintendent Mick Zais plans to eliminate state standards covering, among other things, class sizes in public schools, teacher workloads, certification requirements for teachers and the number of guidance counselors, aides and librarians schools must have. Zais said his goal was to give local school districts more flexibility in budgeting.

But the likely result of doing away with these requirements is a faster race to the bottom for South Carolina’s schools, especially those already dealing with limited budgets.

The rules are listed in R 43-205, a document that contains sections with titles such as “Professional Personnel Qualifications and Duties” for principals and “Professional Personnel Workload” for classroom teachers, guidance counselors, media specialists and others.

Specifically, what the standards do is limit the size of classrooms to a maximum of 35 students. Elementary school music and art classes can have no more than 40 students. Schools with 400 or more students must have a full-time librarian. Teachers must be properly certified.

Under the proposal by the Department of Education, those rules and caps on class sizes would be tossed out the window. School districts would be allowed to increase class sizes and fire “unnecessary” personnel at their discretion.

Zais notes that the Legislature has suspended existing staffing ratios for the past four years, and that no district has dramatically increased class sizes as a result.

He argues that making that flexibility permanent would simply discourage mandates from Columbia and let local districts decide what is in the best interests of their students.

But the suspension of standards was a reaction to extraordinary circumstances. School districts, faced with severely depleted revenues due in large part to the recession, were forced to make difficult budgeting decisions, furloughing teachers and administrators, cutting programs and freezing hiring.

Some flexibility was needed to deal with this emergency situation. But that doesn’t mean the relaxed standards should become the new normal.

As local educators have noted, districts often use the staff-to-student ratios specified in R 23-205 as a template for writing their budgets. The standards help district officials figure out how much money they will need and where it should go.

It’s hard to envision that getting rid of those standards would compel districts to make classrooms smaller, hire more teachers, counselors, librarians and other specialists, or exceed the limitations in R 23-205 in other ways: “Thank goodness we have flexibility. Now we can have more art classes with fewer students.” Who thinks that’s a realistic outcome?

And once class sizes increase and faculty and staffs are pared, how long would it be before lawmakers decide to cut state spending on education accordingly?

Local superintendents around the state have complained that they were not consulted. The S.C. School Boards Association, teacher advocacy groups and some members of the state Board of Education have challenged the proposed changes.

These changes are dangerous in a state where education already faces serious challenges.

We hope anyone who believes quality public education is essential to the future of South Carolina will let their elected officials know they oppose this unnecessary and arbitrary elimination of standards.

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