Originally created 05/28/98

House holds fast to education standards



COLUMBIA -- House conferees said Wednesday they could accept some proposed Senate changes in education standards, but they held fast to grading South Carolina schools on an A-F scale and allowing students at failing schools to transfer.

"There's movement between the House and the Senate to try to get a bill done," said Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston. "Time's drawing short."

The Senate on Tuesday altered several aspects of its public schools reform package, even conceding that class sizes should be trimmed gradually over eight years.

The new proposal agrees with the House plan that help should go first to students at the neediest schools. It would phase in lower class size in each grade over a two-year period.

The Senate's previous, four-year plan would have reduced the size of classes in kindergarten through third grade at every public school, one grade at a time starting with kindergarten, until each teacher had no more than 15 students.

The Senate also now thinks kindergarteners can wait until last.

The House countered Wednesday with a plan to provide the 15:1 ratio next year in first, second and third grades in schools deemed "in greatest need" under Education Department criteria, which includes a district's standardized test scores, dropout rate and attendance records.

Seven school districts currently fall under the "in greatest need" definition: Allendale, Bamberg 2, Clarendon 1, Florence 4, Jasper, Lee and Marion 3. There are 13 elementary schools in those districts.

"We ought to focus where the need is," Mr. Harrell said.

The following year, the 15-student-per-teacher ratio would include all schools receiving an F grade under the new accountability plan. It was unclear how many schools that would include.

"They have not moved on class size," said Senate Education Chairman Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia. "We need to reach all children."

Karen Horne, an Education Department policy assistant, said smaller class sizes should be available to every student, not just those in poorly performing schools.

"Our highest performing students are being out-achieved by their national peers," Ms. Horne said. "We shouldn't just do this piecemeal."

Mr. Setzler said he reviewed the House response and found that members agreed only to items the Senate compromised on, without giving any ground on the issues senators wanted.

"It doesn't look like to me they've budged," he said. "It puts us in a very difficult position unless they're willing to talk about compromising issues."

Mr. Setzler said he still is not willing to bow to House proposals to label schools with an A-F grade and allow students to abandon a failing school by transferring.