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Senate committee proposes temporary class size compromise

On Monday night, the Senate education committee offered an amendment to House Bill 13, granting a one-year reprieve for districts concerned about not being able to fund art, music, drama, and physical education teachers.

For 2017-18, the kindergarten to 3rd grade average class size would not exceed 20 students, and the maximum individual class size would not exceed 23 students. The following school year, districts’ average classroom size could not exceed the following funded allotment ratios, and the maximum individual class size could exceed the ratios by no more than three students.

– Kindergarten: 1:18
– First grade: 1:16
– Second grade: 1:17
– Third grade: 1:17

House Bill 13, designed to address staffing and space issues, including districts’ inability to fund specialty teachers for classes like music, art, and physical education, would have allowed the average class size to exceed the above funded allotment ratios by three students, and the maximum individual class size to exceed these numbers by six students.

The Senate amendment provides flexibility for the coming school year; in 2018-2019, the requirements revert to those passed in last year’s budget measure (page 40). 

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Franklin and Wake and committee co-chair, introduced the amendment which he said is a compromise resulting from months of working with the House and with school administrators.

“Along with raising teacher pay, for as long as I’ve been here, the number one funding priority for the Senate and this legislature, in many cases, has been lowering class sizes in the early grades,” Barefoot said, adding that, since the fiscal year of 2014-15, the state has allocated $152 million to local districts towards that goal, with $70 million in recurring funds each year. 

The class size conundrum dates back more than two decades. Barefoot said Senate members asked local superintendents how they use the flexibility granted to them and how many enhancement teachers they hire, but he claimed many superintendents could not or would not respond. 

“Those who were straightforward admitted that they were not spending the extra money we gave them to reduce class sizes where it was intended,” Barefoot said. “The lack of transparency and accountability in our school system is completely unacceptable and it has been the number one impediment to reaching a solution quickly on this issue.”

The N.C. Association of School Administrators (NCASA) surveyed school districts about classroom funding. In a letter to senators, the NCASA said, “School districts have been responsive, cooperative and transparent in providing the requested information.” 

NCASA president Katherine Joyce told the committee her organization supports the compromise. Joyce mentioned a pledge by legislators for enhancement teacher funding.

“It provides a reasonable timeline for further reducing class sizes in grades K-3, and in working on this issue, the extra funding that has been pledged to support enhancement teachers in art, music, and P.E., and world languages in year two — when we go to that further reduction in class size — will be very helpful and very much appreciated,” Joyce said. 

Although this pledge is not in the amended bill, Barefoot said he made a commitment with the organization to create a new allotment for specialty teachers once they receive more data on enhancement funding from districts. 

“We are committed to continuing to study and work on funding issues surrounding enhancement teachers in subject areas like art, music, drama, P.E. to ensure a smooth transition to smaller class sizes and to ensure state tax dollars intended to reduce class size are actually used for that purpose,” he said.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, voiced concerns about a commitment not codified in the legislation.

“I will say to you that I have concerns that I think we’ve heard from the committee, including from Senator Horner, that this just becomes a stop gap measure,” Chaudhuri said. “And I hope it does not become a stop gap measure, given the pledge, Senator Barefoot, that you have made and others to try to fund the specialists that I know were in great fear of losing their job…”

Parents, teachers, and concerned citizens convened on the capitol grounds last week in support of House Bill 13. Watch the 360-degree video of their protest

The amended bill requires biannual reports from school districts that include information on teacher funding, class sizes, and program enhancement teachers, along with any other information requested by the Superintendent of Public Instruction. 

The superintendent is required, under the amended bill, to conduct periodic audits of the reports. If any noncompliance is found, the State Board of Education could withhold the local superintendent’s salary. 

Superintendent Mark Johnson issued a statement praising the proposed compromise. “I commend the NC House, NC Senate, and the superintendents across North Carolina on working for a positive compromise that has our students as their shared top priority,” it said. “Now, we all must confront that this debate highlights the need for greater transparency and modern data systems that accurately count and report teachers and class size.” 

Under the amended measure, school districts may apply for waivers to receive exceptions from the class size requirements under circumstances like a lack of available space or facilities, an unexpected increase in student population, or geographic isolation. 

What do you think about class sizes?

The House rules committee considers the measure Tuesday morning. Follow @EducationNC on Twitter for the latest. 
Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.

Laura Lee

Laura Lee is the former content director and managing editor for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Born and raised in Union County, North Carolina, Laura attended Benton Heights Elementary School, Unionville Elementary School, Charlotte Latin Middle School, and Piedmont High School. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies. After graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked as an educator with a civic education organization and then as a program administrator for two Fulbright grant programs.

She received her J.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 2007. In law school, she served as president of the Student Bar Association and was a Davis Society inductee. She also holds a certificate in Nonprofit Leadership from UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Laura briefly strayed from her Tar Heel allegiance in 2011 to obtain a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland where she was an Eleanor Merrill Fellow. She then worked at NPR producing content for the Washington desk, All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation

From 2013 to 2017, Laura oversaw daily production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC’s The State of Things, first as assistant news director for talk programming and then as managing editor.