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Fix for K-3 class size issue heading to House and Senate floors

Updated: 6:36 p.m.

Lawmakers passed a bill that includes a plan to fix the state’s K-3 class-size issue at today’s joint appropriations committee meeting, clearing the way for the bill to go to the full House and Senate floors. 

The education portion of the proposed legislation would phase in the much-debated class-size requirements over the next four years and spend about $60 million in additional funds for enhancement teachers next year. Henceforth, enhancement teachers will be funded by a separate allotment from classroom teachers. Previously, funds for the two were combined in one allotment. The amount of money for enhancement teachers would increase each year depending on the needs of districts. School districts would also continue to get about $70 million each year for hiring K-3 teachers to meet class size mandates. 

“This means that everything our schools had this year and got by just fine on, they will have next year, said Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake. “Plus, they will have an additional $60 million for enhancement teachers on top of that.”

School districts will get a total of $250 million in additional recurring funds by the 2021-22 school year. 

The phase-in would happen gradually over the next four years, with nothing happening next year and then gradual reductions in class size until the 2021-22 school year. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said the legislature still wants low class size. 

“Make no mistake, we are determined to lower average class sizes,” he said. “We are pursuing that. We are just going to stage it out rather than do it in one fail swoop.” 

 

The bill also allows money slated for enhancement teachers to be used on regular classroom teachers. 

Included with the education language in the bill were provisions related to the makeup of the State Board of Elections and funds tied to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Nevertheless, the bill passed the committee with little debate. 

In an interview after the committee meeting, Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said those provisions are clearly aimed at Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. 

“There are two provisions in the bill that are trying to make things sticky for the governor…and both of those issues are likely to get resolved in court and not in the legislature,” Meyer said. 

Governor Cooper released a statement referencing the trickiness of the bill. 

“It’s clear that the legislature finally bowed to public pressure on class size and expanding Pre-K, which is positive for our students, but it’s unfortunate that it has been lumped in with political shenanigans,” he said.

Meyer said he was in favor of the class size bill, though he added that districts still need additional funding for capital expenses. Capital expenses are generally not funded by the state, and so districts have to take on most of that financial burden alone. One issue with the class size restrictions is they may require extra classroom and building space for districts, which they will have to fund. 

But overall, Meyer said the bill was a win.

“The public pressure worked,” he said. “They gave in and had to admit that the class size mandate was unfunded and was going to cause problems.” 

The bill came under criticism from Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant with the NC Justice Center. He said the General Assembly should have never been in this situation in the first place. 

“It is definitely a mixed bag,” he said. “It is certainly better than current law, which was just making districts eat a $300 million unfunded mandate. But it’s certainly worse than if the General Assembly hadn’t messed with the class sizes in the first place.”

He also said that creating a separate allotment for enhancement teachers goes against Republican lawmakers’ stated preference for a less complicated funding system. 

“They always complain about the complexity of our school finance system, but adding a new allotment is how we end up with a complex school finance system,” he said. 

The class size issue can be traced back to 2016. During the short session of the General Assembly that year, legislators mandated class size restrictions in grades K-3 in an effort to keep those pivotal class sizes low. The reasoning behind that change and the problems it causes are complicated and covered extensively in this explainer

In the 2017 long session, districts around the state were upset about the new rules. They said that new restrictions effectively meant they would have to eliminate extracurricular teachers in subjects like music, art, and physical education. Meanwhile, the increase in classes that would be required by the restrictions meant that districts around the state would need to scramble for extra space in schools. This could mean the addition of trailers or other building facilities. Because districts pay for those kinds of upgrades, they argued the class size restrictions amounted to an unfunded mandate. 

In the short session, the House tried to reduce restrictions with House Bill 13. But on the Senate side, lawmakers transformed it. The version that passed only delayed the harshest restrictions for a year, meaning that districts got a reprieve for the 2017-18 school year, but would face the full brunt of the change in the 2018-19 school year. 

Barefoot said that a fix to the class size mandate problem took so long because lawmakers didn’t know just what they were dealing with. 

”Until recently we did not know how many program enhancement teachers were working in the state of North Carolina,” he said. 

House Bill 13 also required districts to report information related to program enhancement teachers, class sizes, and other items. Lawmakers have said for a while now that they could not act until they got better information on how districts were using enhancement teachers. 

Lawmakers also announced today that they are allocating more money for the NC Pre-K program. After the most recent long session of the General Assembly, lawmakers included funding in the budget for 3,535 new seats for NC Pre-K, cutting the program’s waiting list by 75 percent. Lawmakers said today the additional funds in the bill would eliminate the waiting list by the 2020-21 school year. 

In a press release, Mark Johnson, superintendent of public instruction, said he hopes this bill will allow policy makers to get back to what really matters. 

“Our youngest students will benefit from smaller class sizes and Pre-K programs that we know lead to better outcomes, and our school districts will benefit from dedicated enhancement teacher funding and a longer implementation timeline,” Johnson said. “My hope is that we can now shelve the partisan wedges and put the focus back where it needs to be: on making sure every student can read proficiently by the end of third grade.”

Organizations like BEST NC and the Public School Forum of North Carolina sent out statements expressing their support of the legislation this afternoon. 

“We’re very pleased to see the General Assembly recognize the need for millions more in new funding for teaching positions including Arts, Music, Physical Education, etc., as well as a longer, 4-year implementation window. This proposed bill provides both,” said Keith Poston, president and CEO of the Public School Forum. 

During the press conference this morning, lawmakers pointed out the North Carolina Association of School Administrators in particular for its work helping lawmakers come to a solution. They asked Executive Director Katherine Joyce to come to the podium, where she said her organization was pleased with the phased-in approach to the class size restriction. 

“On behalf of the superintendents and other school leaders in our membership, we are pleased to support this reasonable timeline,” she said. 

The House was also slated to vote on three of Governor Cooper’s nominees to the State Board of Education: current board member Reginald Kenan, as well as J.B. Buxton, a former state superintendent, and Sandra Byrd, a former UNC-Asheville associate professor. But when the House came into session late in the afternoon, House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said that not all of the nominees had yet turned in a required piece of paperwork and so the resolution was returned to committee. Barefoot in the Senate also made an announcement to the same effect.


Editor’s Note: J.B. Buxton is on the Board of Directors for EducationNC.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.