MOUNT PLEASANT, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to lift a cap on class size averages is meeting resistance from educators, but the Republican calls the proposal a key element of his effort to allow school districts to raise teacher pay.
Haslam told reporters after a visit to a Maury County middle school this week that Tennessee is alone in setting both maximum total and average class sizes.
"We're the only state that does that, so I think that's worth looking at," he said.
Removing the average size requirement would allow schools to have larger classes, meaning the total number of teachers could drop.
"Lifting the maximum average class size would give local school boards, if they wanted it, some flexibility to pay some teachers more, but no teacher would be paid less," Haslam said. "That ability to pay some teachers more for hard-to-teach subjects in hard-to-teach places is very important."
Haslam stressed that the maximum class size limits would remain in place, but some educators fear the effect of more classes being filled to capacity.
"We get more out of kids when we have smaller groups that we're working with, or smaller schools overall," Rick West, principal of Scales Elementary School in Brentwood, told the governor when he visited the school Wednesday.
Maury County Schools Director Eddie Hickman expressed similar reservations after a meeting with the governor.
"I don't see how that's going to improve educating kids by putting more kids into a classroom," Hickman said. "All education research shows you're supposed to be lowering teacher-pupil ratios."
Hickman said the latest proposals combined with last year's changing of teacher evaluation and tenure standards have contributed to the lowest teacher morale since he became the district's school director in 2004.
"It's because of all the magnitude of all the education reforms up on Tennessee's Capitol Hill," he said.
Lawmakers last year also did away with teachers' collective bargaining rights, though that was a legislative measure separate from Haslam's education agenda.
"Let's get the game plan together, and let's stick with it three to five years before changes are being made," Hickman said. "You can make changes, but if you make too many changes over a period of time, you're going to lose effectiveness from the top down."
Haslam acknowledged that rapid changes in education may be unsettling to some.
"One of the issues for us is that when we're trying to raise standards and achievement levels in Tennessee — which we have to do — it's important not only that we do the right thing, but that we do it at the right pace," he said.
To that end, Haslam said, the administration wants to hear more about the issues raised by educators, and won't rush the class size proposal through the legislative process. But the governor called the measure "fundamental" to efforts to give school districts more flexibility on pay.
"What we've heard forever from locals is that we have so many state mandates that we can't engineer things the way we'd like to," Haslam said. "And so we came up with a plan that gives them more flexibility to do that.
"But if they're saying that's not quite what (they) had in mind, then we're willing to listen."
Democrats blasted the proposal, calling it detrimental to the goal of improving student achievement.
"Governor Haslam's plan to increase class sizes is the wrong way to go," state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said in a statement. "It's a bad idea that shortchanges our kids' future."
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