NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A new bill proposed in the legislature would put the control of class sizes in the hands of local school districts rather than with the Tennessee Department of Education. 

“We’re not saying, ‘Hey, have ginormous class sizes,’” Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said. “That’s frankly silly, asinine. But localities should be able to determine the maximum class size.” 

Lundberg, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, introduced SB0197, which would eliminate state-mandated class size maximums and get rid of a statewide prohibition on “split-level” classes, which contain more than one grade level. 

Instead, school districts would be able to set their own class size maximums for each grade level, and the Department of Education would issue “guidance” for districts to use in establishing those class sizes. 

“The state will put out the best practices and here’s what the research shows,” Lundberg said. “But the LEA determines class size.”

It’s a move that’s part of a larger battle of state versus local control in education. Most times, Democrats are in favor of more local control.

But this time, the sides are switched.

“I think we should be going in an opposite direction where we’re decreasing the class sizes,” Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) said.

Currently, state law mandates that class sizes for K-3 grades keep to an average size of 20 students, with a maximum class size of 25; in grades 4-6, the average should be 25 students, and the maximum 30; for grades 7-12, the maximum class size is 35 students, but the average is set at 30; and for career and technical education (CTE) classes, the maximum size is 25 and the average 20. 

The bill specifies that each district would create its own size maximums and averages, with the only stipulation being that the class sizes must also comply with “all applicable state and local building, sanitation, utility, and fire code requirements,” as well as with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

Lundberg faces criticism from people who say he’s trying to eliminate class size. But he says it’s not eliminating a benchmark, it’s simply shifting the authority behind it, and his local district asked him to consider it.

“They said we have a third grade that has 26 students,” Lundberg said. “Well, the maximum class size for third grade is 25. Shouldn’t we have the discretion to go over one or two?”

“There needs to be some approval at the state level because yeah, we do have the cases where it’s 26 students,” Akbari countered, separately. “But what about the LEA that wants to save money, so they put 35 students in the classroom? And that, I think, is unacceptable.”

Akbari argues it’s a slippery slope. One year it may be 26, then the next is 27 and so on.

“What I would prefer is that if you do have those one-off situations or it’s one or two students, they could ask for a waiver to the state law,” she said.

But Lundberg said LEAs have a vested interest in preventing that because of the threat of being voted out.

“I don’t think you’ll see that abused,” he said. “I really don’t because those LEAs are governed by elected boards – school boards.”

If passed, the law would take effect this July, just before the start of the 2023-2024 school year.