Wednesday July 14, 2010 | 02:06 PM

According to the federal government, Maine's student-teacher ratio jumped from 9 to 12.2 between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years.

The Maine School Management Association reported the updated numbers this week after the National Center for Education Statistics put out its report based on 2008-09 data.

The latest statistics suggest that class sizes are inching up as student counts stabilize and cash-strapped districts dismiss more teachers and leave retirees' positions unfilled.

(Remember, though, the change isn't as dramatic as it might look. The federal government based the 2007-08 student-teacher ratio on an erroneous number of teachers. An accurate figure, according to Maine School Management, would have been about 11.3 students for each teacher.)

For the Maine Education Association, the higher student-teacher ratio could add credibility to its claims that class sizes are growing. The teachers' union in a May press release said class sizes were "ballooning" as a result of teacher layoffs.

Others, including Maine School Management and Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, point out that Maine's student-teacher ratio is still among the lowest in the United States. Maine's 2008-09 ratio is well below the 15.8 nationwide average.

The latest statistics likely do point to a legitimately defined trend in Maine schools. The Maine Department of Education's statistics -- through its data reporting system, MEDMS -- show the number of classroom teachers has dropped about 3 percent since the 2004-05 school year while the number of students has dropped, but then begun to stabilize around 190,000.

But how much faith can we put in the federal government's student-teacher ratio?

The confusion over Maine's 2007-08 student-teacher ratio hinged on an erroneous number of teachers employed in the state. But it appeared impossible to nail down the right number. There's also a discrepancy between federal (187,484 for 2008-09) and state (192,286 for 2008-09) numbers regarding the number of public school students in Maine. (A separate federal count reports Maine enrolled more than 196,000 students during the 2007-08 year, while the state reported 190,000).

Jim Rier of the Maine Department of Education told me last month that some of the discrepancy has to do with inconsistencies in tallying those publicly funded students who attend private schools. Since the number of schools counted as public by the federal government didn't change significantly from 2007-08 to 2008-09, it looks like that inconsistency still applies.

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