Acting Superintendent James Whitson said the continued budget deficit, not rising enrollment, makes the increase necessary. Adding students to classes prevents the district from having to hire additional teachers, which money is not available for, he said.
“We’re at the point where we don’t have alternatives, and if we don’t act now it could very easily be five or six more students next year,” Whitson said.
Local districts are turning to class-size increases because of funding decreases from the state. The Columbia County school system recently requested a waiver to go seven students above state limits, Deputy Superintendent Sandra Carraway said.
Though Carraway said the school board is committed to not go more than three students over, the option is there to offset a $13 million funding deficit.
The only alternative to class-size increases would be to raise taxes or shorten the school year with more furlough days, she said.
“That’s really sad, but those are our options,” Carraway said.
In Richmond County, board members debated whether raising class sizes was worth the effect it could have in the classroom.
The board voted 8-2 Tuesday to approve the waiver, with Venus Cain and Barbara Pulliam in dissent.
“If I voted for it, I couldn’t sleep at night,” said Pulliam, a former teacher. “I can’t vote for that many kids in a class.”
Class-size limits depend on the type of student, teacher and grade level, but in general, the caps are 18 for a kindergarten class, 21 through third grade, 28 in fourth and fifth grades, 28 in middle school and 35 in high school before the three-student increase.
The effect class size has on student achievement is an unresolved issue among education experts, and researchers say other factors outweigh size.
Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, said what is known is that large classes are inconvenient for teachers and have a poor public perception; however, increases of three to five students are not proven to hurt learning.
“There’s very little evidence that the large class sizes are going to have much, if any, effect on achievement, but it has a lot of fiscal consequences,” he said.
What’s more important, he said, is teacher quality.
“The impact you’ll see from an increase in class size depends entirely on which teachers are laid off,” he said. “The reality is the worst teachers drag down the achievement of the whole district.”
Though increasing class size is unfavorable, Richmond County school board member Jimmy
Atkins said the decision was necessary.
“I don’t think any of us really think this is something we want to do, but at the same time we realize it’s something that has to be done,” he said.