A legislative deal announced Thursday means North Carolina elementary schools won’t have to reduce class sizes this year that school officials said could potentially threaten art, music and physical education programs.
State Republican legislative leaders said they will phase in the smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade over the next four years instead of lowering them at once this fall. As part of the delay, lawmakers will include $61 million a year to help school districts pay for art, music and physical education teachers.
The deal comes after school officials around the state said they didn’t have the thousands of extra classrooms needed and might have to fire arts and PE teachers to help come up with the money to hire additional K-3 teachers.
“What we have here is a good solution to a problem that I don’t think anybody really anticipated but needed to be solved,” Senate Leader Phil Berger said at a press conference announcing the deal.
The House and Senate were to discuss the legislation, which also includes money for expanding pre-kindergarten programs, on Thursday and could vote on it by Friday, Feb. 9.
The Durham Public Schools had projected it would need 63 additional classrooms — the equivalent of two elementary schools — and 90 teachers to meet the class size mandate.
DSP leaders had not put a price tag on the cost of 63 classrooms, but had said the 90 additional teachers would cost about $6 million per year.
DPS Board of Education member Steve Unruhe said the news about the class-size mandate is welcome.
“It’s great news,” Unruhe said. “I wish they’d done this six months ago and saved our administration some worry.”
Meanwhile, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) is exempt from the class-size mandate until 2020 due to its participation in Project ADVANCE, new skills-based pay model designed to add supplemental pay to teachers’ income based on professional development.
But spokesman for CHCCS said the decisions made Thursday will help the school district in the future.
“Even though our school district is fortunate to be exempt from the state-mandated class size reductions for this year, we will eventually have to comply,” said Jeff Nash, spokesman for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. “The steps taken by the legislature today will greatly help school districts throughout the state immediately, and will also help us when we get to the point of having to implement the reductions.
If the district had to comply, it would need 40 additional classrooms and 40 new teachers.
Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican, said the goal is to eliminate the state’s pre-K waiting list by 2021-22. The news comes after speakers at this week’s Emerging Issues Forum called on state leaders to expand enrollment in North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten programs.
“We developed this plan that we believe will have a real impact and a positive impact on the lives of our students,” Barefoot said.
School districts have been clamoring for quick action on the K-3 class size issue because they’re planning budgets for the 2018-19 school year. Parents and educators said it would be too late if lawmakers wait until the short session in May to act on the issue.
Starting in July, elementary schools were faced with a new requirement that would drop average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to roughly 17 students per class. The average was 21 students last school year. Class sizes will not change for the 2018-19 school year under the deal.
State lawmakers had initially required the changes to go into effect for the 2017-18 school year. But school officials complained that the changes reduced their flexibility to use state dollars to pay for art, music and physical education teachers.
Amid lobbying, state lawmakers agreed last year to a one-year delay while they studied issues such as whether the state should separately fund those teachers.
Republican legislative leaders said it had taken time to develop a deal because they needed to review the data provided by school districts on how many “enhancement teachers” – arts and PE – they now have. The state had separately funded those teachers until the 1990s.
“We’re just very pleased here,” said House Speaker Tim Moore. “This has been months and months of work.”
School districts around the state have continued to warn about a wide range of negative consequences of smaller class sizes without additional funding.
School leaders and parents have kept up the pressure over the past several months to urge state lawmakers to either delay the class size changes or come up with more money to fund the smaller class sizes. Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democratic elected officials had joined the campaign.
Renee Sekel, a Cary resident who organized “class-size chaos” protests in Raleigh, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the development, but wanted to read the bill.
A fix to the class size mandate was “critically important,” Sekel said. “I’m grateful they are dealing with this. I’m trying to hold back my impulse to say ‘what took you so long.’ But at the end of the day, I want it fixed. And if it’s fixed, I’m not going to be throwing stones.”
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, thanked educators and parents who kept attention on the issue.
“The original class size bill was flawed from the start with an enormous unfunded mandate,” he said in a statement. “The delay in this proposal was unnecessary and the threat of educators losing their jobs was very real and disruptive to our schools. The phased-in plan has always been the more reasonable approach for local school districts, but whether the resources are adequate is still a question mark. This doesn’t address the other class size challenges in higher grades, and it doesn’t provide funding for much needed school construction which many local districts will find a significant challenge. While it ends a Pre-K waiting list, which is good, it’s unfortunate that this class size bill had to be politicized with other controversial legislation around the gas pipeline, state board of elections and expansion of a new private school voucher scheme.”
Republican legislators repeatedly said Thursday that they are still committed to lowering class sizes as a way to improve student learning.
“We’re committed to lower class sizes logically, reasonably and in good time,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican.