Class size mandates are a major legislative issue

Apr 17, 2017
Legislation limiting class sizes in the early grades will mean more elementary school teachers and potentially cuts to teachers in areas considered less essential by the state, including music, physical education and art.

RALEIGH — North Carolina law dictates that school districts must reduce class sizes in grades K-3 in the upcoming 2017-18 school year. However, lawmakers have failed to provide the funding necessary to allow districts to meet the class size goals, according to new analysis from the NC Justice Center's Education & Law Project.

This has left districts scrambling to meet new requirements by initiating layoffs and eliminating enhancement teachers, making controversy over the requirements the biggest issue facing the state's public schools in the 2017 legislative session.

In North Carolina, funding for classroom teachers is provided by a position allotment, meaning the state provides each school district (or local education agencies, LEAs) a set number of teachers based on the number of students at particular grade levels in each district, the report said.

Under current law districts can deploy teachers as they see fit, as long as the average K-3 class size across the LEA doesn't exceed 21 students and individual K-2 classes don't exceed 24, allowing districts to hire enhancement teachers in areas like art and physical education and target class-size reductions to students who benefit from smaller classes. Historically, the average class size limits has exceeded the allotment ratio by three students, and the individual class-size maximum has exceeded the allotment ratio by six students.

"Going into the 2017-18 school year, however, the General Assembly has radically changed class size requirements," said Kris Nordstrom, an analyst with the Education & Law Project and author of the report. "The LEA average class-size would not be allowed to exceed the teacher allotment ratio, and the individual class-size maximum would be set at three students above the allotment ratio, in turn eliminating funding for enhancement teachers."

North Carolina’s districts will need to find between 3,000 and 5,400 teachers in grades K-3 to comply with the General Assembly’s class size requirements, the equivalent of an unfunded mandate of between $188 million to $338 million, the report said. Smaller classes will also require school districts to have more physical classrooms for their students, and tightened class size requirements will force districts to expand their elementary schools, often resorting to housing students in expensive trailers.

In Haywood County, school leaders say an additional 10 teachers will need to be added in addition to the required teaching assistants. If the class size reduction comes without funding, administrators fear positions such as music, art and physical education may be impacted.

The N.C. Justice Center cited the following impact to these other schools across the state.

  • „„Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools believes that, with elementary schools already at capacity, meeting capital needs in time for the next school year will be impossible. The district will need $3 million of local funds to fund teacher
    supplements for new positions and maintain enhancement courses.
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will need 353 additional positions at a cost of over $23 million due to the changes.
  • Durham County Schools estimate needing to hire an additional 100 teachers.
  • Henderson County Schools estimates spending over $3 million to hire the additional 48 teachers required and purchase 21 mobile units.
  • „„Johnston County Schools would need to add approximately 85 teaching positions and a number of mobile units.
  • „„Onslow County Schools Superintendent Rick Stout estimates his district will require 147 additional positions, 139 classroom spaces, and 51 temporary classrooms.
  • Wake County Public Schools will reportedly require 460 teachers and the creation of 400 new classrooms, totaling $320 million in personnel, capital, and operating expenses.

Low-income and minority students will most lose out on initiatives providing targeted, small class sizes for at-risk students, the report said. Such programs were made possible by the flexibility afforded under the current class-size policies and absent this flexibility, districts will be forced to provide nearly all students near-uniform class sizes.

"Money will be spent on purchasing mobile units and hiring lower-quality teachers due to a teacher shortage instead of instructional materials, tutoring, literacy coaches, teacher training, teacher assistants, child nutrition, school technology or mental health," Nordstrom said. "Every dollar invested in class-size reduction is one less dollar that could be spent on other initiatives that might have greater educational impact."

Early in the 2017 Legislative Session, lawmakers introduced House Bill 13 (HB 13), which provides a compromise to avoiding the negative impacts created by unfunded class size reductions. HB 13 would restore the past relationship between the allotment ratio, the LEA average class size, and the individual class-size maximum, allowing districts to maintain enhancement courses within existing funding. Although HB13 passed the House unanimously in February, the Senate has since refused the consider the bill.

"It is important that General Assembly leaders move quickly in resolving this issue," Nordstrom said. "School districts are well into their local budgeting processes and districts must begin the process of making personnel decisions. Districts are required to provide written notice to dismissed teachers, provide procedures for appeals, and make payments for accumulated leave. Such decisions will need to be made well in advance of the start of the new school year."

Comments (1)
Posted by: Beth G. Johnson | Apr 17, 2017 17:05

This is a disgraceful political trick by the General Assembly.  At first glance it seems that smaller class sizes are being created which is good.  However, by changing the teacher allotment payments, each K-2 class will have to be close to 24 students, NOT smaller.  If a school is forced to spend money on more class rooms, there is less money for art, PE, music or even teachers.  Local schools need local control.  This is not a Republican or Democrat problem; rather an attempt for the General Assembly to damage our schools by forcing an unfunded mandate upon them.

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