There’s no time to waste in addressing NC’s self-inflicted class size crisis

There’s no time to waste in addressing NC’s self-inflicted class size crisis

To casual observers, the recent controversy surrounding public school class-size mandates in grades K-3 might seem a bit confusing. The traditional roles seem reversed: the Republican General Assembly is advocating for smaller classes next school year against the pleas of public school advocates. When you throw in a bunch of confusing budget terms like allotment ratios, enhancement teachers, and accusations of misspent funds, the issue is muddied further. Please allow me to cut through the muck.

The K-3 class size controversy is simply a classic case of an unfunded mandate. Beginning next school year, the General Assembly is requiring school districts to reduce their class sizes in grades K-3. The General Assembly has spent $122 million reducing K-3 class sizes over the past three years. However, achieving the class sizes the Senate is demanding schools meet next school year costs an additional $318 million. That’s the crux of the story. The General Assembly wants small class sizes, but they don’t want to pay for it.

Things get confusing only when you place yourself in the shoes of public school officials trying to manage this unfunded mandate. With the new school year quickly approaching, public schools are scrambling to meet the requirement. Some districts are asking for more money from their county commissioners, placing the burden of the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate on local taxpayers. Other districts are initiating layoffs, placing the burden of the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate on teacher assistants and teachers in “non-core” – but educationally crucial – subjects such as music, art, and physical education. Districts are re-working school assignment and transportation plans, retro-fitting closets and offices into classroom spaces, reducing elective courses, and hiring between 3,000 and 5,400 new, possibly under-prepared K-3 classroom teachers. Clearly, students are also bearing the burden of the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate.

The solution to this morass is quite simple. On February 16, the House passed House Bill 13, which would set K-3 class size requirements commensurate with funding levels. Remarkably, H.B. 13 passed unanimously, a level of support usually reserved for proclamations on the deliciousness of apple pies or the cuteness of puppies. Despite this overwhelming support, Senate leadership has been slow to advance the bill. With school districts working on next year’s budgets and planning, every day of Senate delay creates greater costs and chaos in our schools.

Though the bill has finally been schedule for committee discussion this evening, Senate leaders have failed to provide a coherent defense of their delay. Senator Chad Barefoot, a chairman of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee on Education/Higher Education, has stated that he doesn’t know what districts have done with the “tens of millions of dollars” provided to school districts for class size reduction. Until today, he has refused to advance H.B. 13 until he can get to the bottom of this “mystery.”

Barefoot has either been pretending to not know the answer, or hasn’t been paying a lot of attention. The necessary data is available on the Department of Public Instruction’s website. This publicly available data shows that districts have spent their classroom teacher money on teachers, in full accordance with General Assembly laws and regulations. Yes, districts have limited flexibility to use their teacher money on other things. But for the last full school year, districts only transferred less than 0.05% of their teacher money, which was ultimately spent to hire assistant principals and other instructional support personnel.

Of course, senators might have alternative motives for leaving this class size issue unresolved. Many informed policymakers speculate that the Senate is using the class size issue as a bargaining chip for upcoming budget negotiations with the House. The Senate knows that members of the House truly want to fix this problem and alleviate the harm being inflicted on public schools.  According to this theory, House leadership might accede to Senate budget priorities to fix this self-inflicted mess.

So far, state leaders have done little, if anything, to pressure the Senate to solve this issue. Superintendent Mark Johnson continues to focus on his legal battles with the State Board of Education, rather than trying to find a solution that would bring relief to public schools.  Governor Cooper has also been disappointingly silent on this issue, neglecting a key opportunity to show citizens that he’s willing to fight for public schools.

In the meantime, school districts across the state are doing their best to navigate through this chaos. They are making budget requests, re-deploying teachers and students, initiating layoff procedures, and building new classrooms. They are busy managing the uncertainty created by the General Assembly’s unfunded class-size mandate, rather than focusing on their core mission of educating North Carolina’s children.

It’s unclear what’s been keeping the Senate from focusing on their core mission of governing. The issue is simple. The data are clear. All that’s required is for leadership to bring H.B. 13 to a vote, and solve this issue as soon as possible. Let’s hope this evening’s committee meeting is an indication that senators are finally ready to act.

Kris Nordstrom is a Policy Analyst the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.