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EdExplainer: Class size conundrum

There is a big brouhaha stirring in North Carolina over class size restrictions. And while people on one side or another may think this is simply another partisan battle, a clash of ideologies, it is possible that the explanation may be simpler than that. This could all be a consequence of confusion. 

The situation

To give the big picture, here is where the situation stands. Without going into the real numbers, because that may be confusing, the state currently provides teacher funding for schools based on a ratio. Let’s say the ratio is 1-to-26. That means that for every 26 students, a school gets the funding for one teacher. If there are 572 students in the school, that would give you 22 classrooms of 26 kids each. And the state would give the school funding for 22 teachers. Perfect, right? Every kid has a teacher. 

Here is the wrinkle. What about extracurricular teachers? Those who teach arts, music and PE? In order to provide funding for them, that ratio — the class size allotment ratio — would need to be lower. 

Let’s say 1-to-22. If the school gets funding of one teacher for every 22 students, that would mean they have money for 26 teachers. That means they would be able to provide 22 regular teachers and four extracurricular teachers. 

That’s an actual example given in something called the Basic Education Program (pg. 49), constructed under General Assembly statute by the State Department of Public Instruction. The explanation is for grades 4-6. While the ratios vary, the logic applies to all grades, and the BEP has laid out this policy since at least 1985. This is how extracurricular teachers get funded. 

The problem is that in the 2016 short session of the General Assembly, the budget (pg. 40) made a requirement that class size allotment ratios and average class sizes actually be the same for grades K-3, and the budget also laid out what those class sizes should be. That means, using the example above, if the average class size is 26, then the school only gets funding for the 22 regular classroom teachers. One teacher for every student. There is no money left over for extracurricular teachers. The mandate effectively cuts money for extracurricular teachers. 

In an attempt to remedy this problem, the House passed House Bill 13, which restores some of the flexibility described in the samples above. The Senate has not yet taken this up. 

How did we get here? 

It is complicated and convoluted.  

Prior to 1995, regular classroom teachers and so-called “enhancement” teachers, which includes your arts, PE, etc, had two separate line items. For grades K-3, regular classroom teachers were funded at a ratio of 1-to-23. If average class sizes were 23 students large, that would provide exactly the funding needed to have one teacher for every student. 

Enhancement teachers were funded by taking the difference between the ratio of 1-to-23 and 1-to-20. Let’s say there was a school of 506 students. At a ratio of 1-to-23 students, the school would get funding for 22 teachers. Under a ratio of 1-to-20, the school would get 25.5 teachers. The difference between the two is 3.5 teachers. So, in the enhancement teacher line item, the school would get funding for 3.5 enhancement teachers. This is the same as simply using an allotment ratio of 1-to-20 for all teachers.

That is how it worked. 

Now, it’s important to note that state statute stipulated that the average class size and the class size allotment ratio must be the same — but that only applied to the regular classroom teacher line item. So, if the allotment ratio was 1-to-23, then the average class size would have to be 23. This becomes important later. 

In 1995, the General Assembly passed House Bill 6. This bill was an attempt to clean up the myriad of line items in the budget related to education. What it did was consolidate line items. In this case, enhancement teachers (and some other teacher categories) would no longer have their own line item. They were folded into the general heading of classroom teachers. 

At that point, the funding for all teachers was then done with an allotment ratio of 1-to-20. That provided the money for the regular classroom teachers, as well as the extra money we mentioned above for enhancement teachers. The problem was that statute mentioned above. The class size allotment ratio was supposed to be the same as the average class size ratio. But that wasn’t the case. Legislators would look at the law, they would look at the class size allotment ratio and the class size average, and they would think to themselves: “Something ain’t right here. We’re funding them for a lower average class size than they actually have.” 

Then someone, in this case Philip Price, former CFO for the Department of Public Instruction, would have to come over and explain what was happening. The lower class size allotment ratio was necessary to fund both regular classroom teachers and enhancement teachers. The confusion occurred because the line item was consolidated. The law said one thing, but practically, something different needed to happen. The legislators would nod their heads and say they understood. A few years later, another legislator would look at the law and the ratios and ask the question again. Philip would explain again. This happened over and over. 

As a matter of practice, the state and local districts followed the policy laid out in the BEP, which explained in detail why the allotment ratio had to be smaller than the average class size. 

To add a further wrinkle to this whole thing, a few years ago the General Assembly granted local districts budget flexibility. Basically, districts were allowed to take money allocated for one line item and transfer it to another line item. For example, if a school had all the teachers it needed already but not enough textbooks, they could take some of the money allocated for teachers and spend it on textbooks. With some restrictions, they could use state money as they saw fit.

Now, in recent years, in an attempt to lower class sizes, the General Assembly started to shrink the class size allotment ratio even further. This meant even more money for districts. This money could now be used for enhancement teachers, as well as for additional teachers to shrink class sizes. The gap between the average class size and the class size allotment ratio grew. 

But while the class size allotment ratio was shrinking, the actual average class size in schools wasn’t shrinking at the same rate. 

In the 2015-16 school year, the average class size in grades K-3 was 19, according to the NC School Report Cards. 

Some in the General Assembly didn’t like that the actual average class size had not reached the lows they intended. 

The General Assembly wanted the average class size to be as followed: 

  • Kindergarden: 1 teacher per 18 students
  • 1st grade: 1 teacher per 16 students
  • 2nd grade: 1 teacher per 17 students
  • 3rd grade: 1 teacher per 17 students

In order to ensure that, in the 2016 budget, they required that the class size average actually be the same as the class size allotment ratio, and they specified class size limits. That policy will go into effect next year. 

The consequences

The mandate by the General Assembly has thrown the state’s school districts into chaos. 

First, since the average class size in the state is higher than the average class sizes the General Assembly wants, some school districts need extra teachers. But they don’t have state money that will allow them to both hire extra teachers and keep extracurricular teachers. As a result, some are thinking about cutting the extracurricular teachers — getting rid of art, music, PE — while others are considering cutting teacher assistants to make up the money needed to hire more teachers. 

Plus, there is another problem with the class size mandate. Kids don’t come in easily divisible numbers. Let’s take the kindergarten mandate. The General Assembly wants there to be a class size average of 1 teacher for every 18 kids. So, if a school has 162 kindergarteners, that would be perfect. That would easily divide into nine classes of 18 kids. But what if a school has 172 kindergarteners? The school is only getting funding of 1 teacher for every 18 kids. The allotment ratio would only give the school 9.5 teachers for those 172 kindergarteners. A half a teacher is the same as no teacher at all, so that leaves the school with nine teachers and nine classrooms for its kindergarten students. That would bring the classroom average up to 19, which would put the school in violation of the state mandate. The only option is to create an additional kindergarten class and bring in an additional teacher. But the school only has money for half a teacher. Where does the rest of the money come from? Not the state. It comes from the district. 

That’s a relatively simple look at the problem. Now imagine it writ large and applied to other grades. Schools will need to hire extra teachers without extra money, while at the same time trying to find a new way to fund extracurricular teachers. 

Then there is a further problem. Even if the math worked perfectly, and even if state funding under the new mandate would create funding for a perfect number of regular classroom teachers for every student in the school, the school may still need additional space. If that school with 162 kindergarteners previously had an average kindergarten class size of 20, it had eight kindergarten classrooms. Under the mandate, to have an average kindergarten class size of 18, it would need nine classrooms. While the class size allotment ratio provides funding for nine teachers, it doesn’t provide funding for an extra classroom. If that school is at capacity and doesn’t have an extra room to spare, it will need to bring in a trailer or construct a new classroom. The state doesn’t give localities money for capital expenses — construction, facility upkeep, trailers, etc. The education lottery does give districts some money for these things, but it’s not nearly enough to cover the expenses schools already have. To come up with an extra classroom, the district is going to have to produce funds itself. 

In the example above, that extra space amounts to one classroom. But in real life, the extra space needs are often more severe. Wake County, for instance, anticipates its going to need 400 extra classrooms. It could require a lot of extra money that is not coming from the state. 

The solutions

As mentioned, the House passed a bill called House Bill 13. It would allow schools to exceed the class size allotment ratio by three students.  If the class size allotment ratio is 1-to-18, as its supposed to be in kindergarten, the school could have a kindergarten class size average of 21 students. The bill also allows the actual class size of any particular class to exceed the mandate by six students. These fixes would help mediate the problem. 

Take the very first example: A school with 572 students. With a class size allotment ratio of 1-to-18, the school would get funding for 31.7 teachers. That rounds to 31.5 teachers because the state allots teachers to the nearest half. However, if it were allowed to have an average class size of 21, then it would only need about 27 regular classroom teachers. That would leave funding for at least four more “enhancement” teachers.

The Senate has not taken the bill up, and some do not expect it to be heard until late April.

Meanwhile, schools are already planning their budgets for next year and creating contingencies in case House Bill 13 does not pass. That means considering cuts to extracurricular teachers, teacher assistants or anybody else they can to make room for the extra teachers. That, or coming up with extra funding on their own for the teachers. That also means coming up with the money for facility costs to make the space necessary for the extra classrooms. 

Why is there a problem?

If the problem is so apparent, then why is this fight happening? Nobody is arguing that lowered classroom sizes aren’t a good thing. And nobody is saying that schools shouldn’t have arts, PE, music or other enhancement teachers. However, what some legislators are doing is expressing concern that schools aren’t using the money they receive from the state in the proper way. 

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, co-chair of the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee, said this in March.

“We have asked school districts to provide data on where state dollars that were designated to reduce class size were being diverted. We will need to fully review that financial information before we can make an informed decision on whether school districts’ choice to divert these funds away from class size reduction was appropriate. After that, we will determine what needs to be done.”

The North Carolina Association of School Administrators helped disseminate a survey to collect this information and returned the results to the Senate. In a letter to the Senate, NCASA said the results show that schools are mostly complying with the current law, and where they’re not, they’re likely doing so because they have no choice. 

The next steps remain with the Senate.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.