Teachers want voters to cap size of classes

May 12, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Responding to widespread complaints about chaotic classrooms with as many as 50 students, the Baltimore Teachers Union and some City Council members want voters to decide whether to require the school system to cap class sizes.

The moves could have far-reaching consequences for the cash-strapped city school system. The union, for example, says its bid to reduce class sizes in all grades would require hiring nearly 1,000 teachers at a cost of more than $30 million a year.

The union launched a petition drive yesterday aimed at gathering the necessary 10,000 signatures to put specific class size limits on the ballot this year as a city charter amendment.

That petition drive coincides with a move by seven City Council members to place a similar, but more limited, amendment on the ballot.

Union President Irene Dandridge said the 8,500-member BTU's bid comes after a decade of failed efforts to include class size limits in its contract.

"We believe it's a matter of setting priorities," she said. "Those of us who are in the schoolroom, in the classroom, know that . . . you can't teach 48 and 50 kids in a geometry class.

"Now, it's more controlling chaos than it is teaching. We don't have a chance in hell of meeting the mandates that the public, that the State Board of Education, that the superintendent have put on us."

The union's proposed charter amendment would limit preschool and kindergarten classes to 22 students, elementary school classes to 25 students, middle school classes to 28 students and high school classes to 33 students. The school board would be permitted to exceed those limits with "acceptable justification," but not by more than 15 percent for most classes.

Like the union, Councilman Carl Stokes, the chief sponsor of the council bill that calls for a charter amendment, said limits on class sizes are long overdue.

Mr. Stokes, a 2nd District Democrat who heads the council's Education and Human Resources Committee, said teachers and parents have deluged lawmakers with complaints about large classes.

"It's obvious to anyone with good sense, common sense or no sense that a teacher who has 40 kids in a class vs. a good teacher who has 20 kids in a class is able to do a better job with a smaller classroom," he said.

The council members' proposed charter amendment would set limits for kindergarten through fifth-grade classes. But Mr. Stokes said he might eventually seek to expand the limits to higher grades.

The proposed charter amendment would limit kindergarten through second-grade classes to 20 students and classes in grades three through five to 25 students.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said he opposes both efforts to limit class sizes on the grounds that they would overemphasize one aspect of educating children.

"I am definitely in favor of the concept of limiting class size," Dr. Amprey told the council's Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the bill last night. "But I am very much opposed . . . to the way that is being proposed now."

Rather than spending millions of dollars on hiring more teachers, the school system must consider many priorities and decide how best to provide a mix of staff development, training and programs to improve education, he said.

Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, D-5th, said that she shared the superintendent's view. "I don't know of any research that would say that class size is the most critical factor," said Ms. Hall, who taught elementary school in the city for 13 years.

Another former teacher disagreed. Mary Pat Clarke, the council's president, said she has fought for a cap on class sizes for more than a decade.

"It was really the beginning of an effort to put our money where our kids are, to get the money to the classrooms themselves," she said.

Mrs. Clarke and Mr. Stokes noted that the city imposed limits on class sizes about eight years ago, when Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns and the council agreed to provide $1 million each year to reduce class sizes.

It began with kindergarten, and Mr. Burns' successor, Kurt L. Schmoke, extended it to first grade before discontinuing the effort.

Last night, Mr. Schmoke's Law Department sent the council a memo questioning the legality of the charter amendment bill.

Quoting the Annotated Code of Maryland, the memo said the State Board of Education is to "determine the elementary and secondary educational policies of the state."

The bill would amount to the city government legislating "in the area of education law and policy" in violation of state law, the legal opinion said.

The Law Department's memo also concluded that class size limits should be handled in legislation rather than in the charter, which should focus on the "form and structure of government."

But Mr. Stokes, Mrs. Clarke and some of the five other co-sponsors of the council bill said they disagreed with the opinion and had no doubt about the legality of the measure.

About a dozen parents and teachers turned out last night to support the bill.

Sandy Sales, a teacher at Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary near downtown, pleaded with council members to support the proposed charter amendment.

"More than ever, the youngsters need individual, prescriptive care," she said. "As a teacher, I need to know them as individuals more now than ever before. . . . I'm begging for the lives of our

children."

Across the state, policies on limiting class sizes vary.

Baltimore County has no limit. In Howard County, the school board mandates teacher-pupil ratios. School boards in Harford and Carroll counties set goals for class sizes.

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