Reporter's Notebook: School class size plan gets failing grade

photo Dr. Jesse Register
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to relax state mandates on local schools' classroom size isn't getting a passing grade from many of the people who run them - school superintendents and directors.

The Tennessee Association of School Superintendents recently surveyed its members and found 80 percent of those responding don't like the proposal, Nashville's WKRN-TV reports.

Many parents don't like it either, and some GOP lawmakers say privately they are feeling the heat on Haslam's legislation.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, acknowledged the situation to reporters Thursday, saying "I do have a number of members concerned that it's not being well received back in home school districts.

"I think all of this is still a work in progress, and we'll wait and see what happens in the legislative education committees," she said.

Harwell stressed that Haslam's intent is to offer local schools more flexibility. The bill is sponsored by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who as leader handles the governor's legislative package. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, is the sponsor.

Present law says student-teacher ratios can't exceed 20 for grades K-3, 25 for grades 4-6, 30 for grades 7-12 or 20 for vocational education.

Moreover, no school can have an average size of any grade level unit exceeding the ratios. Individual class sizes can rise above the ratios so long as no class exceeds a ratio of 25 for grades K-3, 30 for grades 4-6, 35 for grades 7-12 or 25 for vocational education.

Haslam's bill maintains the maximum class size caps but eliminates average class size mandates for each school.

Democrat Party critics say Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman's brainchild would allow districts to eliminate 2,000 teachers across the state.

Harwell said she knows of at least one school chief who likes the bill. That would be Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, who formerly headed Hamilton County Schools.

But WKRN-TV quoted Williamson County School Director Mike Looney saying the "request from TOSS [school superintendents' group] is not to take any action on the bill."

"We feel like we have most of this figured out on how to impact students in a positive way, so we don't need a lot of state intervention to get the work done," Looney added.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith did not respond to a Times Free Press request this week to discuss his position.

Democrat Quitting

A former top state Senate Democrat is joining the list of Democratic lawmakers who won't seek re-election following Republican redistricting.

Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, a nearly 28-year veteran who once served as Senate Democratic Caucus chairman, announced Friday he won't run again.

Haynes' district became more Republican in the GOP-drawn redistricting map. Haynes maintained in his announcement that he could have won if he ran.

He denounced Republicans for what he called their "secretive" process when drawing new political boundaries for senators.

The 75-year-old Haynes said he is in good health but added he won't run because the "sweet siren call of my family, a huge stack of unread books and a little-used fishing boat demand my attention now."

He becomes the third Senate Democrat to announce he won't seek re-election. Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, announced after the plan passed he won't run again. Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, said before the bill was unveiled that he was running for Congress.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, meanwhile, is weighing whether to run for his seat, which is more Republican now, or for Chattanooga mayor.

Republicans think they can pick up the Haynes, Herron and Berke seats. Stewart's district still leans Democratic. Senate Republicans currently enjoy a 20-13 edge over Democrats. Seats held by two Democratic senators in Memphis are being merged with one of the seats moving to Middle Tennessee, where population growth has exploded. Republicans think they can win it. Democrats aren't so sure.

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