The S.C. Department of Education is pushing to eliminate student-to-teacher ratio caps, teacher workload limits, and requirements for the hiring of guidance counselors, among other statewide regulations. Proponents say it's a matter of giving school districts flexibility. Opponents say it's misguided at best and a conscious plan to destroy public education at worst.
"They're coming from this small-government mindset: Get it down so you can drown it in the bathtub," says Patrick Hayes, a Drayton Hall Elementary School teacher and founder of the education advocacy group EdFirstSC. Hayes has been rallying teachers and other supporters around the state on the issue this week, prompting a flood of angry phone calls and e-mails to the State Board of Education, which is currently considering whether to pass the proposal along to the state legislature in 2014.
Currently, state law sets caps on the ratio of students per teacher in public schools. For example, the highest allowable student-to-teacher ratio is 20:1 in prekindergarten, 30:1 in fifth grade math, 35:1 in all eighth grade courses, and 35:1 in all high school courses other than physical education. If the proposed legislation passes, all of those caps would be eliminated. The only area in which ratio requirements would remain intact is special education, where the proportions are set to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to staff at the Department of Education.
The section of state law that would be affected by the legislation, Regulation 43-205, includes a broad range of rules, and a printout of the law with the to-be-deleted sections crossed out looks like a heavily redacted wartime letter. Currently, 43-205 dictates that schools must provide 50 minutes of guidance counseling services per week for every 100 students. It requires schools to hire assistant principals and media specialists as well as art, music, and physical education teachers according to student population size. It says high school teachers must not be required to teach more than 150 students per day.
Under the proposed legislation, all of those regulations would be eliminated.
The Department of Education, headed by Republican Superintendent Mick Zais, has been on a deregulation kick of late, according to Roy Stehle, director of the state DOE's Office of Federal and State Accountability, which drafted the bill. "Dr. Zais has really pushed the flexibility issue to kind of going to the edge of the cliff but not jumping off, using the flexibility that's already available in law and regulation and trying to give districts more so there are fewer hoops they have to jump through in terms of establishing innovative programs," Stehle says.
Stehle says the DOE is interested in cutting down on paperwork, "developing guidelines as opposed to regulations," and giving school districts "wiggle room" when it comes to staffing. Asked why the proposal would eliminate the 150-student cap on high school teachers' workloads, Stehle said, "It allows flexibility for the district to make that determination. You know, what if you hit 151? Do you hire another teacher for one or two more students that might come in during the school year?"
When asked what would prevent a school district from allowing, say, a classroom with 60 students and one teacher, Stehle said that any school board that allowed such a ratio would have to answer to "public pressure."
The idea of capping classroom sizes goes back at least as far as the 12th century A.D., when the rabbi Maimonides decided that classes larger than 40 students should be split in half and given to different teachers. Federal law does not currently set limits on student-to-teacher ratios, although many states, including South Carolina, have set their own maximums.
While Stehle says that both Superintendent Zais and the legislature-appointed State Board of Education have pushed for giving "flexibility" to school districts, the proposed changes to Regulation 43-205 do not have universal support on the board. Board chairman David Blackmon says he has gotten an earful about the issue from teachers, administrators, parents, and guidance counselors, and he agrees with them that eliminating the regulations would cause more harm than good. "If we look at the fact that our [state] constitution says we have a 'minimally adequate' education, it is my feeling that we should have some minimum standards," Blackmon says, "so we will not have a teacher who has a classroom that's overloaded or will not have a guidance counselor that has to split his or her time between two schools."
A Statement of Need and Reasonableness that accompanies the proposed legislation states that some of the to-be-eliminated rules are "already defined in federal and state statutes." But Blackmon says that, aside from the special education requirements that are being kept intact, almost none of the regulations are backed up by federal law. He says some public schools could be held to similar standards if they seek accreditation from agencies like AdvancED and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, but otherwise, schools would no longer be held to the standards currently written in state law.
Barry Bolen, the chairman-elect who will take over leadership of the board in 2014, also opposes passing the deregulation bill on to the state legislature. "Generally speaking, I'm not in favor of doing away with the regulation because I think it protects students and teachers from overloads and budget cuts and things of that nature," Bolen says. "A district might need five more teachers to keep their ratios down, but if it's not required, they might say, 'Well, make do with what you've got,' which would mean larger classes and schools without media specialists and guidance counselors."
Bolen also points out that school districts already have a degree of flexibility in that they can apply for waivers from state regulations. He gives the recent example of rural Williamsburg County School District, where one school serves 400 students in grades 7-12. The district requested permission to have a single principal over the whole school, rather than separate middle and high school principals as the law requires, and the waiver was granted.
One board member who says he's open to considering the proposed deregulation is Larry Kobrovsky, who represents Berkeley and Charleston counties. He says he received about 200 e-mails on Tuesday from people who opposed the measure. "I'll certainly pay attention to that, but you also need to remember the only time the people get to vote on the superintendent of education is every four years, and you also have to look at that," Kobrovsky says. "There were clear choices then, and Dr. Zais did win by over, I think, 100,000 votes." Zais won the 2010 election for superintendent, coming out more than 108,000 points ahead of Democratic challenger Frank Holleman. Zais has said he will run for re-election in 2014, although he has not started campaigning yet.
Kobrovsky says he supports the idea of creating smaller classroom sizes, and he doesn't think the proposed deregulation would encourage districts to make classroom sizes larger. "They can make class size smaller or they can make class size bigger," Kobrovsky says. "So the issue is, do you give that [decision] to those who know best at district level, or do you keep the state regulation?"
He adds, "It's nothing inconsistent with what Dr. Zais has done all along with giving power back to school districts."
To read the proposed legislation, click here.