Opinion: Don’t want your student’s class too big? Call your Tennessee lawmakers

Staff File Photo by Carmen Nesbitt / Brainerd High School students work quietly on their assignments during class Sept. 29. Tennessee Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he filed a bill to leave decisions about student-teacher ratios, class size maximums and class size average to local school districts after talking with teachers and education leaders in rural school systems.

File this under the heading of "another Tennessee bill packaged under the guise of helping education but actually giving cover to another Tennessee failure."

We're talking about a bill that would repeal limits on class sizes for Tennessee's K-12 schools, introduced by Bristol Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg.

The 17-year veteran lawmaker says his aim is to give back the choice of class size to local districts, not to create excessively large classes of students.

"I had concerns from several districts [that] class sizes were limited, and frankly, I just thought it would be better and more effective to turn that back over to the [local education agency]," Lundberg told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

We're sorry, but this really doesn't pass the smell test.

We all know that smaller class sizes are conducive to more learning. There are plenty of studies showing this, but we don't really need studies. There isn't a mom, dad, teacher or principal on the planet who doesn't already inherently know this.

Not only that, but since when are Tennessee lawmakers interested in giving back any decision-making power to local governments, school systems, residents or anything else? They've pretty consistently in recent years usurped all of that power for themselves. That's why cities and counties can't prohibit guns in our parks, our ballfields and our churches. And no, this isn't because our lawmakers think guns don't kill -- because they still prohibit them in the state Capitol!

Our state solons don't want school systems to have the choice of offering faculty sensitivity training -- politically weaponized now with the buzz phrase "implicit bias" training. Yet they want districts to make their own choices about class size?

The Tennessee General Assembly took away businesses' -- even hospitals' -- choice to require COVID vaccines and masks.

And good gracious no: This super-majority Republican frat house says women and doctors certainly mustn't be able to make their own decisions together about child birth.

So now we're to believe they suddenly want to give school systems some choice?

By the way, state law already includes a process for allowing schools to submit waivers to the current class maximums under special circumstances. Critics of this bill say the waiver process offers plenty of wiggle room for school systems.

So what's the real reasoning here? Well, money, of course.

If you can put 40 -- or however many more youngsters in a class -- instead of 25, 30 or 35 depending on the grade, you don't have pay for another teacher. Multiply that a few times for some of our schools that have student bodies numbering several hundred to 1,000 or more students, and suddenly you're talking real money and big savings.

Of course, you're also likely talking still-lower test scores and graduation rates.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, tells us teachers feel not having a limit will cause more problems, not solve any.

"Even if they're just talking about art or music or gym or PE classes, these teachers still have to grade papers and manage students. ... And principals are not going to want overloaded classrooms because it cuts down on performance."

UnifiEd, a local education advocacy organization, assumes the bill is an attempt to address the teacher retention and teacher shortage issues, but this is not the way to fix it.

"It's actually going to exacerbate the problem rather than solving anything because we're not solving any of the underlying issues," said UnifiEd director Kendra Young, a 20-year veteran Hamilton County teacher.

Not even the TennesseeConservativeNews.com buys into this guise of kindler-and-gentler lawmaker approach, quoting another Tennessee public high school teacher:

"Bills like these make me want to spend 5 minutes in a room with some of these legislators, telling them what I think. Actually, I'd much prefer that they come spend an hour in my classroom so they can see if they actually think this bill makes sense. #1) If they really think that ALL school districts are going to use this in moderation and only when necessary, they are crazy and 2) if they want to see increased performance in schools, piling more kids in a classroom isn't the way to do it. I would also like to have a word with the teachers and school officials who requested that change. The ones who did it obviously only did it for financial reasons and not for educational value."

But not to worry: Lundberg, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says if the bill passes and creates an unhealthy situation for students and teachers, he would work to repeal it.

Is that like a money-back guarantee? After two or three years of 40 kids in second and third-grade classes where students again fail literacy tests, we'll claw this back? That might look normal on the law books, but it surely won't give those students back their lost learning time.

File this bill into the round file.

Today’s class size by the numbers

– Grades K-3: 25 maximum

– Grades 4-6: 30 maximum

– Grades 7-12: 35 maximum

— Hamilton County Schools’ average pupil-teacher ratio is 18:1