The N.C. Senate Backs Off Class-Size Mandates for Now, But What About Next Year? | Wake County | Indy Week
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The N.C. Senate Backs Off Class-Size Mandates for Now, But What About Next Year? 

Senator Chad Barefoot, R-Wake and Franklin, accused North Carolina's public school systems of playing games Monday evening, saying local superintendents had refused to provide lawmakers with the numbers of art, music, and physical education teachers serving lower grades.

Democrats, in turn, effectively accused Republican leaders of brinksmanship, after they—at virtually the last minute—introduced a widely anticipated bill that will affect school systems across the state. The Senate Education Committee moved forward with a modified version of House Bill 13, the class-size bill that was handed to Democrats just in time for a brief discussion and a unanimous seven p.m. voice vote, with a Senate session minutes away.

The amended bill essentially relaxes the class-size mandate—which school officials have complained that legislators have not adequately funded—for one year. For the 2017–18 school year, the bill now sets a district-wide average class size of twenty students in grades K–3, which is larger than the mandate set to go into effect in July, and a maximum of twenty-three students in any one class. Then, for the 2018–19 school year, the average K–3 class-size mandates of sixteen to eighteen students apply.

The Wake County Board of Education was set to meet Tuesday afternoon in a budget session, after the INDY goes to press. Members will now have to add to that discussion an analysis of the new HB 13, which may offer only a partial solution to the Wake's previous projection of a $26 million tab for meeting state-mandated class-size numbers. The school board has asked the Wake County Board of Commissioners for a $56 million increase in local funding, while questioning what county officials have said is the increasing use of county funds to ease cuts in state appropriations.

Barefoot was addressing Monday's quickly called meeting of the committee, which he cochairs. A solution could have emerged more quickly, Barefoot said, if superintendents had responded more quickly to requests for information.

"The General Assembly has appropriated tens of millions of dollars to fund [smaller classes]," Barefoot said. "Imagine our surprise when we discovered that these dollars have been spent on something else."

"Since 2014, local school districts across the state have received a total of $152 million to lower class sizes," reiterated a GOP press release. "... However, not all school systems have used the extra funding to reduce class sizes, and many systems could not or would not provide data on how they spent the money."

The bill addressed some of school officials' concerns about having to cut "specialties" teachers but raised other questions about the way systems will be funded in the long term.

"I have concerns that this will just become a stopgap," says Senator Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat with two children attending Wiley Elementary.

Since the Great Recession hit, some school systems, including Wake's, have moved around money set aside for regular teachers to pay for music, art, and PE instruction. Because the revised HB 13 loosens class-size requirements for the coming school year, it relieves to some degree the anticipated budget crunch.

However, as Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes told the INDY after the committee meeting, the legislature has not restored school funding to levels seen before the recession. North Carolina school systems' use of regular teacher pay for art, music, and physical education was permitted by the legislature as a result of that period of shortfall, says Holmes, who questions Barefoot's promise to put money for specialties teachers in the 2018–19 budget.

"If the General Assembly was genuine, why is that funding not written in with the bill?" she asks.

Barefoot argued that the bill would strengthen accountability standards, requiring superintendents to submit regular reports on how teacher-pay allocations are used. Superintendents who knowingly submitted inaccurate reports can have their salaries withheld.

Indeed, Monday's session showed that administration of the state's K–12 education system is more deeply drenched in politics than ever. Republicans hiked reporting requirements so that the legislature itself would have to be informed about any class-size waivers in lower grades before they could take effect.

The association representing state teachers, a traditionally Democratic constituency, came out against the revised bill as offering too little and being too temporary.

"Our teachers should not live in fear year after year about whether they will have a job or not," Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said in a statement. "Our elected leaders must make it a priority to provide a long-term solution, which means elevating North Carolina per-pupil spending to at least the national average."

On other other hand, Katherine W. Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, endorsed the modified legislation, which she helped craft. It now moves to the Senate's rules and operations committee.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Temporary Reprieve."

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