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Wednesday, 17 May 2017 14:34

Lawmakers reach classroom size compromise

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Local school districts will have one more year before they have to abide by much stricter classroom size requirements thanks to a legislative compromise, but even the compromised deal for the 2017-18 school year will force some schools to hire more teachers immediately. 

“The max class size for years has been 24 in kindergarten though third grade, but this coming year they’ve moved it to 23 so that’s going to cost us at least five teachers, but that may change as students move in and out,” said Dr. Bill Nolte, associate superintendent of Haywood County Schools.

When the 2018-19 school year comes around, school systems will probably have to hire even more teachers to meet the new standards. 

“The law says in 2018-19 instead of 23 students per grade, it will be 18 in kindergarten, 16 in first grade and 17 in second and third grade,” Nolte said. 

The law also states that after the first two months of school districts can apply for a waiver from the state to allow class sizes to increase by no more than three students. Nolte said he would prefer to have that waiver flexibility for the entire school year instead of only after the first two months of classes. 

“If we could have the plus three waiver on day one we could still get classes to where they want them across the state,” he said. “But we’re talking about 20 more teachers if we don’t have that flexibility the entire school year.”

The North Carolina Legislature passed a law during the 2016 session that required school districts to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 in the 2017-18 school year, but the General Assembly didn’t allocate additional funding those districts would need to hire more teachers and get the class sizes down. 

Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, who has served as chairman of the Macon County School Board and Board of Commissioners, introduced House Bill 13 shortly after being sworn in to office back in January. The original bill would have allowed classroom sizes to exceed the current state maximum by no more than six students, which would have given districts more flexibility without having to hire new teachers to deal with a small overflow problem.

“I consistently believe in local flexibility,” Corbin said. 

Without this proposed flexibility, many of the school districts across the state were scrambling to figure out what they could cut from their budgets to plan for more teachers. Haywood County school administrators were looking to redirect $423,000 that was set aside to increase teacher supplements to pay for new hires instead. 

Many schools across the state were facing the difficult decision of whether to cut “extras” like art, music, technology and physical education to comply with what they considered an unfunded mandate. 

However, Corbin’s colleague, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, also a former Macon County commissioner, said the legislation was not an unfunded mandate and he did not support Corbin’s HB13 in its original form. Since the legislation that passed last year to lower class sizes originated in the Senate and was supported by Davis, he couldn’t support larger class sizes. He said that research shows lower class sizes enhance student performance, which is why Republicans have made it a top priority in education policy. 

Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, said funding and class size reduction legislation had come at the request of school districts and also argued that the bill was not an unfunded mandate. 

“While many groups and individuals across the state have claimed the state has not funded class size reductions, school districts statewide have received $152 million to decrease K-3 class sizes since 2014,” she said in a press release. “I have written about this issue in previous communications, but given the increased attention this issue has been receiving, it is worth reiterating that I voted to fund class size reductions. Due to legislation I voted for meant to reduce class sizes, school districts have been receiving — and will continue to receive — $70 million annually for that purpose.”

Legislators were able to work out a bipartisan compromise that basically gives districts two years to comply. While he wanted more flexibility in the hands of local districts, Corbin said the compromise at least gives school districts time to prepare.

“It’s a good compromise,” he said. “The bill I sponsored was basically to give classroom size flexibility — period. Now it’s a one-year deal to give schools more time to prepare for it.”

Dr. Chris Baldwin, superintendent of Macon County Schools, has said his elementary schools are already at capacity and smaller class size requirements will put additional strain on Macon’s facilities. He estimates the district will need seven more teachers to meet the stricter requirements.

The new law also calls for the accountability Davis referred to by creating a system of reporting on whether the requirements are being met in the classrooms. That reporting can also result in additional funding for local systems. 

“The State Board of Education, based upon the reports of local boards of education and such other information as the State Board may require from local boards, shall determine for each local school administrative unit the number of teachers and other instructional personnel to be included in the State budget request,” the law states.

 The Superintendent of Public Instruction is now authorized to conduct periodic audits of the information reported by the local superintendent to ensure accuracy. If school systems are not adhering to the classroom size requirements without applying for a waiver from the state, the state board may impose a penalty. The state school board could decide not to fund the superintendent’s salary for the period of non-compliance — making the local school district responsible for paying the salary locally. 

Despite the compromise, the North Carolina Association of Educators is still adamantly lobbying for an increase in per-pupil funding to the national average. 

“Currently, North Carolina ranks 43rd in the nation and spends more than $3,000 less per student than the national average. In addition, NCAE will urge lawmakers to fund music, art, PE, and world language teachers in addition to the teacher assistants, media coordinators, and others whose positions were targeted as a result of new class size regulations,” the NCAE issued in a prepared statement. “As part of House Bill 13, the changes will now be phased in over two years, but the funding has not been put in place.”

School systems wanted guaranteed additional funds in the bill, but it didn’t come to fruition, which means they will still be left guessing when next year’s budget time rolls around. 

According to NC Policy Watch, the General Assembly would need to increase classroom teacher funding by about $293 million in 2018-19 to fully-fund class-size requirements and enhancement teachers. Based on district enrollment projections for the 2017-18 school year, North Carolina’s schools will require at least 28,345 teachers in grades K-3 to meet the tightened class-size requirements slated to go into effect in the 2018-19 school year.

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