By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday that he’s abandoning his proposal to do away with average class size restrictions in Tennessee.
The Republican governor’s decision came as a growing chorus of educators and parents — and the lawmakers who represent them — criticized the idea, fearing the change would hurt teaching standards because more classrooms would be filled to capacity.
Haslam said in a press conference in his Capitol office that his plan was thwarted by the challenge of explaining that the measure’s goal is to give school districts more flexibility to hire high-priority teachers.
“When the reason to do something takes you four minutes to explain, but the reason not to do something — you can say large classes bad, small class sizes good — takes five seconds, it’s a difficult process,” Haslam said
The governor noted that Tennessee is the only state that places caps on both the total classroom size as well as on average school-wide enrollment.
The difference between the average and maximum limits is five students. For example, no class in elementary schools can be larger than 25 students, but the school-wide average can be no more than 20 per class.
But the governor’s message fell flat as he tried to persuade teachers and administrators during school visits around the state.
“We’ve heard enough discussion and feedback of, ‘We understand where you’re trying to go, we still have concerns about the path that you’re going there on,'” Haslam said. “So we said that’s fine, we will wait and work on that and pursue it with some adjustments next year.”
Haslam’s decision to put off the bill was lauded by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as by the state’s largest teachers’ union.
“We thought it was the wrong approach from the very beginning,” said Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters. “It wasn’t good for education or the children of this state.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, noted that the decision came after a series of meetings with teachers and administrators at schools around the state. She called it “a credit to him as leader that he would listen to all interested parties, and say let’s step back from this and revisit it another time.”
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said the proposal was a case of where “sometimes ideas sound good in a meeting, but when you go public they don’t work out.”
“I think people in Tennessee want us to try to keep class sizes as small as possible,” he said.
Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said she was supportive of giving school districts more flexibility to make staffing decisions.
“This is all a process, and we’re all headed in the same direction,” she said. “And it’s not necessarily easy to get there.”
Haslam said he’s not planning to back off of a separate proposal in his legislative agenda that would do away with most civil service protections for state workers.
Haslam said the move is in keeping with his governing mantra of providing “the very best service for the very lowest cost.”
“When every one of our commissioners says that’s the most important thing we can do to provide that kind of service for Tennesseans, I think it’s really incumbent on us to follow through and make that happen,” he said.
Robert O’Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association said this week that several weeks of discussions have ended because the “governor’s people were unwilling to remove or compromise on the provisions most harmful to state employees.”
Haslam’s proposal would eliminate rules that allow bumping and retreating, which association officials say removes seniority as a prime protection for state employees when layoffs are deemed necessary.
The proposal would also strip the right of a person who is laid off to be called back to work if the economy improves.