Zais drops effort to repeal standards

November 10, 2013 

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said he wanted to permanently repeal state standards for K-12 class sizes and staffing to give local school districts more “flexibility.” The reaction of much of the education community: No thanks.

Zais proposed to eliminate standards covering, among other things, the class sizes in public schools, teacher workloads, certification requirements for teachers and the number of guidance counselors, aids and librarians schools must have.

The Legislature has voted to suspend these standards for the past four years during the height of the recession, and Zais asked the state Education Board last month to make the changes permanent.

But educator advocacy groups strongly opposed the move, and they quickly mounted a campaign against it, enlisting teachers and skeptical residents. At their October meeting, a number of state education board members also voiced their concern about the plan, saying that repealing the standards could lead to overcrowded classrooms and understaffed schools.

Now Zais has relented, saying he no longer would ask the board to eliminate the standards. But he has not entirely abandoned his crusade; he said he will recommend that the Legislature again suspend the class-size regulations when it returns in January.

We can understand why the regulations were temporarily suspended during the recession, when districts were coping with significant revenue reductions and the need to cut expenses, including furloughing teachers and administrators.

But now that the economy is improving, we think permanently eliminating caps for class sizes and other standards would spawn the packed classrooms and staff shortages that critics predict.

It’s once thing to adjust local budgets to temporary changes during an emergency. It’s another thing altogether to structure a school district’s budget based on changes that are permanent.

As local educators have stated, districts often use the staff-to-student ratios specified by state regulations 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.

If districts are given a free hand to eliminate teaching positions and other staffing, and to raise the number of students in classrooms, the results could be disastrous for some districts, especially those perennially short of money. The divisions between wealthy and poor district could become even more acute.

As one Board of Education member noted, the state has a duty to set standards defining what an adequate education looks like, regardless of whether the Legislature decides to suspend those standards temporarily.

School districts don’t need flexibility as much as they need the money to meet at least the minimal standards for educating the children they serve.

If Zais is serious about improving education in the state, he should be lobbying for smaller class sizes, more classroom teachers, more art and music teachers, librarians and guidance counselors. We get the impression, however, that, for Zais, excellence takes a back seat to an ideological crusade to shrink government.

We’re grateful that the outcry from alarmed educators and members of the public seems to have stymied him at least for the moment.

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