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Perdue inks class size mandate

ATLANTA - Class sizes in Georgia elementary and middle schools will be capped starting this fall under legislation signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue on Wednesday.

The "Truth in Class Size Act'' - a key component of the Republican governor's 2006 education agenda - will limit kindergarten classes to no more than 18 pupils, or 21 if the teacher has a full-time aide.

Classes in grades 1-3 will be capped at 21 pupils, and the limit in grades 4-8 will be 28 students.

"Today, we're accomplishing two things,'' Perdue said during a bill-signing ceremony at an elementary school in Villa Rica. "First, before the children walk in the door on the first day of school, parents and teachers will know with certainty that the number of children in the classroom will be limited.

"Second, we're reducing class sizes to create a better learning environment for Georgia's students.''

The class sizes bill zipped through the General Assembly during the recently concluded session with minimal opposition.

Minority Democrats had little reason to complain. Reducing class sizes was a major ingredient of the education reform bill former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes steered through the Legislature six years ago.

Perdue delayed those reductions during his first three years in office, saying the state couldn't afford the cost at a time when tax revenues were either declining or growing slowly.

But with tax collections on the rise due to Georgia's economic recovery, the governor earmarked $163 million in the fiscal 2007 budget for class size reductions and set aside another $441.5 million in bonds for school construction, new technology and school buses.

Democrats charged Wednesday that Perdue is only embracing class size reductions now because he is running for re-election this year.

Georgia Democratic Chairman Bobby Kahn pointed to cuts in state per-pupil spending that Perdue and his Republican legislative allies have made to K-12 education since he took office in 2003, which have prompted about 100 school districts to raise property taxes.

"We need a governor who will focus on improving our schools every day, not one who only pretends to do it when an election-year poll tells him he ought to,'' Kahn said.

School administrators in rapidly growing system also were left wondering how they're going to comply with the new mandate from Atlanta.

Gwinnett County School Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks said the state's largest district - with nearly 145,000 students - was already planning to add 322 classrooms to deal with overcrowding. With the class size reductions, he said Gwinnett will need another 508 on top of that by August.

"The truth is the class size bill is misleading in its title and questionable in its value,'' Wilbanks said. "We will improve our schools when we have the will put students first.''

Staff writer Rubina Madan contributed to this report.