One by one, the members of the state Board of Education voted recently 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 Superintendent 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. During 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."
Cox won't have to live with the consequences of her recommendation to expand class sizes. She is quitting her job June 30 to work for a private education organization in Washington, D.C.
The board's vote, more than anything else, represented a final victory for Gov. Sonny Perdue in his long-running 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 might 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 (GAE). "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.
(Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com.)
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