NASHVILLE - As Tennessee school districts continue to wrestle with budget cuts, Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday downplayed concerns about the impact on class size, telling student leaders that teacher quality ultimately matters more.

"Most studies have shown that class size is not as direct a relationship to achievement as people have thought in the past, that having a great teacher with 25 students is better than having a mediocre teacher with 18 students," Haslam said.

He told the hundreds of rising high-school seniors attending the Volunteer Girls State leadership program that he is "trying to push our education [system] toward making sure we have a great teacher in front of every classroom regardless of the classroom size."

"That being said," the governor added, "we can't deny the fact that larger classes mean less individual attention."

East Ridge High School student Ja'Keena Dillard told the governor that a "lot of teacher cuts" in Hamilton County schools already are causing rising ratios of teachers to students and the situation will likely worsen.

"We see that as a problem," she said. "Teachers aren't able to spend quality time with us."

For a few years, federal stimulus funds have helped stave off major cuts for local education systems, including Hamilton County Schools, but the money runs out July 1. Hamilton County officials say they face a $14.3 million shortfall in the 2011-2012 budget.

Efforts to reach Hamilton County Schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

Haslam's comment came during a question-and-answer session with students attending the leadership event. He explained the recession has hit all levels of government, including local ones and some local school systems, but not all are "having to make those hard decisions."

In response to reporters' questions later, Haslam said he by no means believes teacher layoffs don't matter, but he reiterated the point that great teachers can overcome larger class sizes.

That is why his administration has emphasized initiatives such as toughening standards for teachers to win and retain tenure protections, the governor said.

Public Education Foundation President Dan Challener, whose group works to strengthen Hamilton County's public schools, said "teacher quality is the single most powerful force for improving student achievement. Great teachers make a great difference."

But Challener noted that "it's also true that every time we increase class size, we make it harder and harder for all teachers, even the great ones, to get the results we need. And I think that's especially true for teachers working in high poverty schools."

Tennessee School Board Association Executive Director Tammy Grissom said Tuesday she was in the dark about the financial challenges her members face and referred questions to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. That group's executive director, Keith Brewer, did not return telephone calls.

State Education Department spokeswoman Amanda Morris had no immediate figures on local schools' situations across the state.

Attempts to reach Tennessee Education Association spokeswoman Tanya Ruder, whose organization represents teachers, also were unsuccessful.