NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to allow local Tennessee school districts to determine class sizes is drawing strong opposition from teachers who say it will adversely affect students' ability to learn and graduate.
The Republican governor announced the plan and other education proposals last week. He said the measure concerning class size would give local school districts more options and flexibility in how they approach classroom instruction and teacher compensation.
"It keeps the maximum class-size requirements, but average class-size requirements or mandates per school go away at the locals' discretion," the governor said.
Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford said "eliminating the average class size mandates is a radical proposal that will result in every student having less attention from his or her teacher."
"This proposal is a threat to student learning, because smaller class sizes enhance safety, discipline and order in the classroom," she said. "It will result in lower graduation rates and higher juvenile incarceration rates. Students with special needs will have less of the assistance they need."
Kevin King, who teaches band and general music at Heritage Middle School in Williamson County, agreed.
"Teachers have worked for smaller classroom sizes as long as I have been in the profession, which is 19 years," he said. "It's a step backwards, absolutely."
Democratic Rep. John Deberry of Memphis said passage of such a measure would likely require "increased assistance, increased materials for the teacher."
"I hope those will be taken under consideration," he said.
Haslam said the legislation would also eliminate outdated requirements of state and local salary schedules made strictly on seniority and training, and give districts the flexibility to set parameters themselves.
"This legislation is based on two things: First, districts know best how to manage their schools," he said. "Second, it gives them the flexibility to reward those things that they want to reward."
Haslam said he doesn't expect anyone to "lose any salary over this" and that more teachers could end up receiving pay increases as a result.
State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman agreed.
"I think there are some districts that will look at performance and say we want to pay certain teachers more because they're performing at a higher level," he said.
However, Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said he doesn't like that idea, because "what you're doing there is holding teachers' salaries hostage to the students that sit in their classroom, and they have no control over that."
Winters added that he's surprised the governor is proposing such controversial legislation after the pushback he received over changes to the state's teacher evaluation system and on the issue of school vouchers.
The new evaluation standards require half of teachers' assessments to come from testing data, and the other half from classroom observations. Some principals have complained that they don't have enough time to perform multiple evaluations of students, while many teachers have voiced concerns that their subjects are not covered by standardized tests.
Haslam said last month that he has commissioned an outside review to help "separate the anecdotes from flaws" in the new system.
The governor also acknowledged the school vouchers' issue needs more study before being considered this legislative session, and said he is creating a task force to make recommendations on a voucher program in Tennessee.
"I think the governor is going down the wrong road completely," Winters said. "Right now, if I was the governor, I'd be very hesitant to try to make these kinds of changes this year."