Lawmakers mull delaying class-size reductions

ATLANTA - Months after Gov. Sonny Perdue's re-election campaign aired TV ads touting his record of reducing class sizes in Georgia, Republican legislative leaders are pushing a bill delaying further reductions.

The House approved the measure 104-64 Tuesday night during the final hours of a marathon "Crossover Day'' session.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, would postpone a planned reduction of class sizes in grades 9-12 to a maximum of 28 students.

The state began phasing in class-size reductions in grades K-8 after former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, pushed a major education-reform bill through the General Assembly in 2000.

Perdue called a halt to the reductions after he took office in 2003, citing sluggish state tax collections resulting from an economic downturn.

With the state's coffers on the rebound, the governor resumed the reductions last year.

But Tuesday night, Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, said local school systems need more time to begin drawing down class sizes in the high schools because of ongoing annual "austerity'' cuts to education that began when Perdue took office.

"They'd have to have extra classrooms and hire extra teachers.'' said Coleman, chairman of the House Education Committee.

Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, said mandated class-size reductions would hit fast-growing systems especially hard.

He said the Henry County system in his district would have to assign 800 more students to trailers.

"High-growth counties, such as Henry County, need a little more leeway,'' he said.

But Democrats criticized the bill as a failure on the part of Perdue and his Republican legislative allies to keep a campaign promise to continue lowering class sizes.

Rep. Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, read from the text of a TV ad the Perdue campaign ran last fall claiming that "class sizes are going down.''

Rep. Rob Teilhet, D-Smyrna, said the legislature should use the state's estimated $500 million to $600 million surplus to continue the reductions.

"Research shows kids do better with smaller class sizes,'' he said. "If you're not putting money into the classrooms now, when will you ever do it?''

Perdue spokesman Dan McLagan did not return a phone call on Wednesday.

During Tuesday's debate, Coleman offered an amendment he said would strike a blow for local control over education. Under the change, local systems would be given the flexibility to increase class sizes up to 40 percent above what the state funds, which is up to 32 students per class.

After passing the amendment 100-68, the House approved the underlying bill.