North Carolina public school leaders say a legislative mandate to decrease class sizes in the early grades may have a devastating impact on school systems across the state, forcing districts to spend millions more hiring teachers or cut scores of positions for those teaching “specialty” subjects such as arts, music and physical education.
“All 115 districts in the state, this is a problem,” says Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, a group that represents local boards of education at the legislature.
Yet the problem, one spurred by an overhaul to the funding formula for grades K-3 in the state budget, remains something of a secret crisis for North Carolina public schools, at least in terms of public perception.
North Carolina’s school funding allotment, which is based partially on the number of pupils, is complicated, but a directive that emerged from the Senate side of the legislature during this year’s budget negotiations came with a simple message: Make classes smaller.
Education research suggests smaller class sizes, particularly in grades K-3, can boost student performance and some say it could even assuage longstanding achievement gaps between children from low-income and affluent homes.
GOP Senate leaders ordered a new formula that would require schools to bring their average class sizes in grades K-3 in line with the state’s prescribed teacher-student ratio, which varies by grade.
In kindergarten, it’s one teacher per 18 students. In first grade, it’s one teacher per 16 students, and in grades 2-3, it’s one teacher per 17 students.
This chart captures the change for districts, which are, until next year, allowed the flexibility to have average classroom sizes that exceed that threshold. That flexibility, officials say, allowed districts to retain teachers for so-called specialty classes in the lower grades.
And the new rules, according to school leaders, will force districts into stark choices about how to allocate their resources. In some districts, it may mean spending millions more in local dollars to hire additional teachers. Or in other districts, officials say, leaders may be forced to eliminate specialty education positions or draw cash from other pools, such as funding for teaching assistants.
That comes on top of major budget cuts for the state’s teaching assistants in recent years, with local districts shedding thousands of T.A. positions since 2008.
Without state intervention, advocates say none of the options are particularly appealing for many local school leaders who have long complained of underfunding by state leaders in Raleigh.
“There’s one school of thought that this is another strike against public schools,” says Larry Cartner, superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, a rural district in northeastern North Carolina. “There’s another that the legislature didn’t know what it was doing. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Cartner is just one of many local district leaders clamoring for changes in the state budget formula, but with very limited public attention.
Because the new policy was tucked into the state budget, it came with no stand-alone legislation, meaning it emerged from the General Assembly with a minimum of public scrutiny and debate, critics point out.
Winner says legislators, in making the policy overhaul, seemed to move toward an earlier system of funding when specialty courses were allotted separately from core subjects such as English, math and science. That distinction no longer exists in North Carolina, Winner says, meaning that, with funding for all courses on the line, it’s the specialty courses that are likely to suffer without action from the legislature.
Yet education experts point out these specialty subjects reap great long-time rewards for elementary students.
“Lower class sizes are desired, but how the legislature has chosen to implement them presents significant challenges for districts and will result in either local budget cuts or local governments may have to increase taxes to pay for this change,” said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
According to LoFrese, Chapel Hill-Carrboro district enrollment—which exceeds 12,000—is currently at capacity and additional classrooms would be “impossible” to build by next year. LoFrese added that the district would also have to funnel an additional $3 million in local cash to fund teacher supplements for new positions and maintain specialty courses.
Other districts are reporting similar headaches. This month, Cartner told school board members in his rural district, which serves nearly 6,000 students, that they may have to choose between axing specialty courses, increasing class sizes in grades 4-12 or asking for a hefty injection of cash from their local board.
Cartner said his district would need at least 20 new teachers to meet the new funding formula requirements, an increase that would cost the small district roughly $1 million, not including the possibility of even greater costs if the district were forced to expand to house new teachers.
“I dare say we would not be able to come up with 20 new classrooms,” said Cartner. “Creating new classrooms out of thin air would be an exercise in futility.”
In some of the state’s larger districts, which far outstrip Elizabeth City-Pasquotank in terms of enrollment, the impacts are expected to be much more expensive.
Meanwhile, given the prevailing push for smaller class sizes in schools, Cartner added that it makes little sense to shrink classes in K-3 if it comes at the expense of grades 4-12.
“No one is against smaller class sizes,” he said. “But those gains would be lost. It does no good to come out of a class of 17 in third grade and move into a class of 35 in fourth grade.”
According to Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County and an influential K-12 budget writer in the state legislature, GOP lawmakers in the legislature had good intentions when they ordered smaller class sizes, but he acknowledges the idea’s far-reaching impacts might not have been fully considered.
“How things play out is not always how you expect them to play out,” Horn told Policy Watch this week. “I mean, we obviously intended to make class changes. Did we fully understand all of the implications? Quite frankly, hell no.”
While Horn, who chairs the state House education appropriations committee, stopped short of calling the developing crisis for local districts an “unintended consequence,” he said he expects legislators will take up the issue again when they return for their long session in early 2017.
“That’s not our message at all to get rid of the arts teachers, get rid of the music teachers,” Horn said. “That’s not at all what we intend.”
Indeed, Winner said she’s “optimistic” that lawmakers will discuss the problem when they return for their long session in January, although no one, including Horn, guaranteed action.
“The beautiful thing about the legislative process is we can change anything,” Horn said. “Whether we’re going to or not, that’s a different thing. … I can assure you, from the House side, we’re going to listen. I can’t speak for the Senate.”
At the same time, Horn expressed great frustration at the criticism for the legislature on this and other major education issues. Republican leadership in the General Assembly has been a frequent target of public school advocacy groups in recent years.
“We’re getting the crap beat out of us, and frankly, I’m sick of it,” Horn said. “I am frustrated because I really want to do good things. I really am trying hard.”
Horn blamed the current clash over classroom size on legislators’ willingness to package major policy decisions like this one with the state’s overall spending plan, a move that he acknowledged is made to avoid lengthy, sometimes bitter, public discussions and bad publicity for lawmakers.
“Many of us don’t approve of that process, but we understand the frustration that leads to the process,” he said. “But let’s put on our iron pants and get out there and make it work. I need to hear from teachers, principals and administrators, but I need them to talk to me, not at me. I don’t need them shaking their finger at me. Help me out, folks. I can’t do this job alone.”
For local school leaders such as Cartner, regardless of the specifics, they say state leaders like Horn must act. “If it does get pushed down to the local level, it is, as you would say, an unfunded mandate,” said Cartner.