Governor’s Class-Size Initiative in Limbo

Standing before a roomful of Tennessee newspaper publishers and editors Thursday, Gov. Bill Haslam declared he still believes school officials need more legal latitude to adjust student-to-teacher ratios to suit their particular circumstances.

But he acknowledged he’s facing an uphill fight to convince key political constituencies that in some cases a larger classroom size is not necessarily a surefire recipe for lowering student learning potential.

The issue has quickly become the most contentious of the governor’s 2012 legislative agenda. It is panicking teachers, has prompted Democrats to launch a petition drive to fight the plan and is worrying fellow Republicans that public support for the second-year governor’s latest education reform idea may be lacking.

“We want to get this right and our object is not just to have larger class sizes in Tennessee. We know that’s not the right idea,” Haslam told reporters after addressing the Tennessee Press Association’s Winter Convention at the DoubleTree Hotel in Nashville.

But what is the right idea, he said, is creating an environment in which Tennessee’s best teachers can earn higher salaries. That, Haslam maintained, is the ultimate objective behind his legislative initiative.

The governor spent almost the entirety of his speech before the newspaperwomen and men focusing on the subject of education. It is an issue, Haslam pointed out, that many Volunteer State governors before him declared was their number-one priority — and yet often achieved little in the way of demonstrable improvement by the end of their tenures in office.

The state is still awaiting the outcome of a slew of education reforms adopted within the last two years, beginning with changes to teacher evaluations initiated with Gov. Phil Bredesen’s application to the federal First to the Top grant contest. Last year lawmakers added to the list eliminating collective bargaining on teacher labor contracts, expanding access to charter schools and raising the bar needed to earn teacher tenure.

“The object is always to get to the right idea,” Haslam said. As to how Tennessee should ultimately facilitate and usher in a merit-pay system for teachers, Haslam said he welcomes a forthright public discussion “to make sure we get to the right idea.”

Haslam admitted his plan, SB2210, has been met with “mixed reviews,” even joking that his phrasing is “the charitable way” to couch the criticism he’s received.

Even one of the governor’s principle and most powerful political allies acknowledges that any talk of potentially inflating student-to-teacher counts in Tennessee classrooms is going to be met with deep skepticism among professional public educators.

“There is some resistance, there’s no doubt about it,” said Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, who herself spoke to a breakout session of the TPA conference. “Most teachers hold very sacred the ability to have have small classroom sizes. I think what the governor’s intent was was indeed flexibility so that we would allow locals the ability to have a classroom of only five students but have a physics teacher in front of them.”

As written, his plan would allow administrators to add students to a classroom without having to hire extra staff thus freeing up dollars to better pay teachers in hard to teach subjects and challenging schools. For now, he said the bill is on hold in the Legislature while he reviews the possible changes.

“In general, I think he wants to do the right thing,” said Al Mance, Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Association which has met twice with the governor’s administration about the legislation. “I think that when they came up with the proposal, there were questions that they hadn’t considered… I think they really thought that what they were doing would not damage anyone. The fact is that it will.”

The Tennessee Democratic Party launched an online petition Wednesday rallying against the governor’s current proposal.

“Parents and teachers know first hand what difference small class sizes make in improving student learning,” said party Chairman Chip Forrester in a press release. “It’s common sense; the fewer students in a classroom, the more time a teacher can spend with each individual student. If our goal is to improve student learning, Governor Haslam’s plan to increase class sizes is the wrong way to go. It’s a bad idea that shortchanges our kids’ future.”

Haslam’s wouldn’t say what kinds of changes he is willing to make to the legislation, but when asked about handing money to schools to better pay teachers in challenging subjects and schools, he said, “you’re talking a really really large number.”

The governor’s comments came less than an hour before President Barack Obama officially announced that the Volunteer State is one of ten the feds have agreed to exempt from much of the No Child Left Behind law, freeing up schools from what Haslam called “unrealistic” standards which did not recognize school improvements.

The NCLB waiver allows the state to set it’s own rules on judging how schools progress in meeting education standards.