Legislation that would give North Carolina elementary schools more time to reduce class sizes was approved Friday by the state Senate, but Democratic lawmakers complained about the fix being tied to changes in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline fund and election boards.
There was bipartisan support for the education portions of the bill that include more funding for pre-kindergarten programs and phasing in the K-3 class-size changes that school districts said they couldn’t implement this fall. But with Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democrats balking about the non-education portions, Republican lawmakers questioned how anyone could vote against the class-size fix.
“This bill is a solution for parents, students and it produces outcomes in the state of North Carolina,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican.”You’ve got to decide whether your loyalty to the governor is more important than your loyalty to our students.”
House Bill 90 was approved by a 37-5 vote. The bill now goes to the House, which will vote on it Tuesday. Cooper has criticized the bill but hasn’t indicated if he will sign or veto it when it gets to his desk.
After the vote, Senate leader Phil Berger issued a statement about the “overwhelmingly bipartisan” passage of the bill. The bill had split Democratic senators who used words and phrases like “ambush,” “poison pill,” “knife stuck in us,” “kangaroo court” and “Kafkaesque” to describe the GOP decision to link the different issues together.
“The issue as far as I’m concerned is about classrooms and about children,” said Sen. Paul Lowe, a Forsyth County Democrat. “Some of this other stuff we had to go through and some of us will hold our nose and vote for it because we’re concerned about the kids. But it’s bad, really bad. You didn’t have to do it this way.”
School districts have been clamoring for state lawmakers to delay changes that would require them to lower average K-3 class sizes from 20 students per room this school year to roughly 17 students starting in July. School officials said they didn’t have the thousands of extra classrooms needed and might have to fire art, music and physical education teachers to help come up with the money to hire additional K-3 teachers.
Under the deal announced Thursday by Republican legislative leaders, class sizes in kindergarten through third grade will remain unchanged for the 2018-19 school year before being gradually lowered to the new averages for the 2021-22 school year.
The bill also provides $61.4 million a year for school districts to pay for arts and PE teachers.
Other education-related portions of the bill would increase funding for pre-kindergarten to eliminate the waiting list for the program and expand eligibility in a new state program that provides debit cards worth $9,000 for families of students with disabilities to pay for education expenses.
House Bill 90 also makes changes to the state elections board. The changes are the response to Republicans’ recent loss in the state Supreme Court in a ruling that said their earlier attempt to reshape the board was unconstitutional. In the latest iteration, the elections board would have nine members, including one member not affiliated with a political party.
The bill would also take $58 million that energy companies building a pipeline through Eastern North Carolina are expected to give state government as part of a deal Cooper negotiated, and distribute it to school districts in eight counties the pipeline would run through. Cooper calls it a mitigation fund to offset environmental effects of the pipeline, but Republicans repeatedly called it a “slush fund.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said the bill was an elegant way to deal with several constitutional issues facing the legislature while also addressing the class-size concerns.
An argument frequently made by Republicans was that voting for the bill would support the state’s children.
“It’s time that we all work together and do what we need to do for the children of North Carolina,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican. “This is a concrete fix with concrete numbers.”
But several Democrats argued that the class-size fix should have been handled in a separate bill.
“This bill reflects the fact that the Senate has played politics with our children and our children’s future,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat who voted against the bill.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Nash County, said the support would have been unanimous if the bill had been limited to class sizes.
“What’s sad to me is somehow that’s not good enough for you,” said Bryant, who voted no. “There has to be a divisive poison pill in everything that we do.”
During Friday’s debate, Republicans and Democrats acknowledged the outpouring from parents who’ve lobbied over the past year for lawmakers to address the class-size issue.
But Renee Sekel, a Cary resident who organized “class-size chaos” protests in Raleigh, said she can’t support the bill because of the inclusion of the non-education items. She accused Republican legislative leaders of engaging in a “hostage-taking situation” by injecting partisan politics in a nonpartisan issue.
“I think it was utterly unacceptable to package a class-size law with unrelated provisions meant to force unpopular and controversial positions through using our kids as political cover,” Sekel said in an interview Friday.