A bill promising local school districts more flexibility in a time of economic hardship is making its way to the floor of the state House of Representatives.
House bill 1130, sponsored by Jefferson Rep. Tommy Benton, allows school districts to increase class sizes and lifts state controls on how schools spend some of their state funding.
The bill passed the House Education Committee on Thursday.
Benton, a Republican and former school teacher, told the Associated Press he wants schools to have greater freedom as lawmakers prepare to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from education spending.
Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield, who has for months called for more local control of how state dollars are spent, said the bill is a step in the right direction, but only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to allowing districts to survive in such dramatic economic times.
Benton’s bill suspends state class size requirements until 2013, allowing school systems to increase maximum class sizes by one student in kindergarten through fifth grade and by two students in sixth through 12th grades.
Schofield, who directs the county system’s approximately 26,000 students and 1,800 teachers, called the bill “prescriptive local control.”
“I would continue to argue that any increase in local control and flexibility, even in prosperous times, is a good thing,” Schofield said. “But in these current economic times ... we ought to be talking about much more radical local control than this.”
While he said he appreciates the effort made by lawmakers to seek input from local superintendents this year, Schofield argues that class sizes should be based on districtwide averages. He said there are times when 40 children in a class makes sense, and times when only eight or 10 students should be in a class.
“The ways that laws are written we don’t have that flexibility,” Schofield said. “So any move that puts us toward more flexibility is a good thing.”
Schofield said the more flexibility the better, especially as the state makes budget cuts.
“These are dramatic times that require dramatic solutions,” Schofield said. “And we just need to remove all expenditure controls at this point and tell systems ‘here’s what we can afford to pay you; show us what you’re doing with it and make the best local decisions that you possibly can.’ This is pretty draconian in terms of what we’re seeing in terms of potential cuts.”
Already, the state board of education’s policy this year has allowed school districts to request waivers to increase class sizes for up to two students to help systems deal with shrinking state funds. The Hall County system has used the waiver for only a “handful” of classes, Schofield said.
But that may change as funding continues to dwindle.
“Our board has continued to believe that as long as we possibly can — particularly with the population of students that we serve — smaller class sizes are a good thing,” Schofield said. “We’ve probably held onto that as long as we can.”
The bill would have little effect on the Gainesville city school system, which already has more control over class sizes with its charter status, Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said.