By Lindsay Wagner
North Carolina school districts counting on a January legislative fix to the class size mandate that’s having a big impact on schools and families may need a plan B.
House lawmakers say they are keenly interested in legislative action next month that would either delay implementation of a new law requiring districts to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 and/or provide additional funds to districts so that complying with the mandate doesn’t result in harm to other areas of instruction.
But the Senate may not share the House’s view.
“Myself included, there are members of the House that very much want to take this issue up,” said House education committee chair Representative Craig Horn (R-Union). “But in order to do this successfully, we need to have some agreement with the Senate to at least address the issue.”
In an email and in-person conversations with his constituents earlier this month, Senator John Alexander (R-Wake) said the class size issue would not come up for debate at all during the legislature’s January special session.
Responding to a constituent who met with him in person and then emailed him to explain how the law was impacting other districts’ ability to continue offering Pre-K, Sen. Alexander wrote, “As we will not be starting our short session until May 2018, nothing can be done legislatively until then.”
Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke), also a member of the House education committee, said he too is hearing Senators won’t discuss the issue any further next month—and he can’t figure out why they will not.
“I don’t have a read on why the Senate won’t even discuss it. I am unable to see into their psyche,” said Rep. Blackwell.
Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring districts to cap class sizes in kindergarten through third grades at lower numbers than they generally are now. The changes in the law will take full effect beginning with the 2018-19 school year. The potential benefit, say proponents of the law, will be better academic outcomes that result from smaller classrooms.
The mandate, however, did not come with an appropriation of additional funds to hire more teachers or to build out more spaces to accommodate the increased number of classrooms. Some lawmakers have defended that move by saying school districts already have the necessary funds to achieve lower class sizes and have been improperly using them.
But district leaders say that because teachers for enhancement classes (e.g. arts, music and physical education) were never funded by the state, they’ve had to use classroom teacher funds to staff those specialty classes.
The General Assembly granted a temporary reprieve earlier this year so that the full effect of the class size mandate would not be felt until 2018-19, and included a pledge in law that they would fund enhancement teachers beginning in 2018—a pledge that, so far, has not been fulfilled.
If current law stands and the General Assembly does not fund enhancement teachers or make other changes this January, local school districts will have to begin drawing up plans to comply with the mandate that include the following scenarios, they say: increase class sizes in grades 4-12; cut or displace arts, music, PE and special education classes; reassign students to different schools to alleviate crowding; and, in some cases, eliminate or displace Pre-Kindergarten.
In theory, said Rep. Blackwell, reduced class sizes can be a good thing—but it’s a much more complicated issue than simply reducing class size alone, and he says he doesn’t support the forced class size mandate in its current form.
“Years ago when I was on the school board, I was the leading advocate for the reduced class size program,” said Rep. Blackwell. “We reduced our grades 1-3 classrooms over four years to one teacher for every 15 students.”
“But,” cautioned Rep. Blackwell, “there’s a whole lot of professional development that teachers will need so that they can teach differently with fewer kids. And you have to phase it in so that districts can come up with classroom space—we didn’t try to go whole hog over one or two years. It’s a mistake not to lay the groundwork and not to allow for the fact that teaching in front of 18 students versus 24 doesn’t automatically make learning go up.”
Rep. Horn said he’s frustrated his Senate colleagues are not ready to talk about the negative impacts the class size mandate is having on schools and families.
“The Senate has been reluctant to take it up,” said Horn, who hopes they will reconsider. “We are anxious to resolve this and the LEAs [local education agencies] need to plan now and be prepared for what challenges they will face with the new school year.”
According to Rep. Horn, the General Assembly should consider the following to ease the burden that their class size mandate is having on districts: extend the period of implementation so there’s more time for planning and extend more resources so that districts can hire the teachers and build the space they need to satisfy the mandate.
“I have no confidence that we have sufficient teachers that would meet the demand for a smaller class size mandate,” said Horn. “And we don’t even have the classrooms to satisfy the mandate either. So to resolve this issue completely, we have to resolve these points.”
Parents are also getting the message that Senate lawmakers are not planning to take up the class size issue next month.
When a group of concerned parents met with Sen. John Alexander (R-Wake) earlier this month about the negative impacts they are experiencing in Wake County thanks to the new law, Sen. Alexander told his constituents that they should not expect the legislature to take any action during the January special session.
“He said the issue wouldn’t come up until May, at the earliest,” said Jennifer Lichtneger, one of the parents who met with Sen. Alexander earlier this month. Lichtneger said he reiterated that message in a follow-up phone call with her after he said he conferred with several other Senate colleagues.
Changes to the law in May would likely be too late for most school districts that must make staffing and facilities decisions many months before the start of the school year.
In Wake County, a fast-growing district, the class size mandate has resulted in the Wake County Board of Education considering reassignment proposals that would force many families to leave their base schools. The law is also having a significant impact across the state on enhancement classes that include but are not limited to music, art, physical education—resulting in some principals putting art and music on moving carts or considering eliminating those classes altogether to comply with the law.
Sarah McDade is a Wake County parent whose son attends Abbotts Creek Elementary and is potentially being reassigned to a school six miles away. McDade said she initiated a meeting with Sen. Alexander because she wanted a better understanding of how lawmakers came up with the lower class size numbers.
“Senator Alexander said he didn’t think the General Assembly pulled the numbers out of thin air, and figured they probably relied on the help of some kind of education expert,” said McDade. “He said the real motivation for the class size law was the fact that there are too many third graders moving on to the fourth grade unable to read.”
But McDade said Alexander admitted to the parents in the meeting that he honestly didn’t know where the lower student to teacher ratios came from, said McDade.
“And he said this to us: ‘At this point, what does it matter?’,” said McDade.
The parents said the take away from the meeting was that Alexander—who could not be reached for comment for this story—was reluctant to budge on this issue.
“[Alexander] added that if the General Assembly gives the schools another reprieve,” said Lichtneger, “you all will wait another year before you do anything.”
But from where he sits, Rep. Horn says the best way to resolve all of the issues that are coming as a result of a reduced class size law that leaves too little time and resources for proper implementation is for everyone—House and Senate members as well as representatives from school district offices—to sit down together and talk about finding a mutually acceptable path forward.
“It is my hope that Senate will join the House in seeking answers and coming up with an interim plan that allows us to get there.”