Lawmakers hope to ease class size law
By Reggie Ponder
Monday, January 22, 2018
Some area legislators are hoping to move forward legislation they say will provide relief to local school districts whose officials are worried about meeting mandated class-size limits this fall.
Senate Bill 703, which would ease the class size mandate until state officials come up with a plan to fund it, was referred to the Senate Rules Committee on Jan. 12.
State Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, who represents a district that includes Chowan County and seven other counties in northeastern North Carolina, is a primary sponsor of the bill, along with Sen. Jay J. Chaudhuri, D-Wake, and Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe.
Smith said in an interview last week the referral of legislation to the Senate Rules Committee is sometimes designed to slow down its approval. That’s why she and other sponsors of SB 703 are pushing to get the bill moving in the Senate, she said.
“We just feel that the imperative is to get this done now,” Smith said. “We’ve got to get it before the Senate.”
SB 703 was introduced in response to legislation passed in 2015 requiring public school districts to reduce K-3 class sizes as a way to provide more individualized instruction to young students. The law sets new teacher-to-student ratios. For example, in kindergarten the law requires one teacher for every 18 students. In first grade, one teacher is required for every 16 students. In second grade, one teacher is required for every 17 students. The same one-to-17 ratio is also required in the third grade.
The law also contains specific guidelines for exceptions to the ratios. In grades K-3, the average class can’t exceed the statutory ratio by more than three students.
To comply with the mandate, school districts across the state have estimated they’ll need to hire an additional 4,750 teachers at a cost of approximately $300 million — money that hasn’t been appropriated by the Legislature.
To comply with the class size law this fall, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools officials estimate they’ll need an additional $1 million to fund the hiring of 20 additional teachers.
Edenton-Chowan Schools spokeswoman Michelle Maddox said if there is no change to the mandate, the school district would need to hire five additional elementary teachers this fall. Maddox said the cost would be about $322,790 based on average compensation for teachers in 2017-18.
“This amount does not include the cost to purchase instructional materials, furniture and equipment that will be needed for the new classes,” Maddox said.
In arguing for relief from the class-size mandate, SB 703 states that allowing it to be imposed unchanged would have numerous adverse effects. With school districts already having trouble filling classrooms with qualified teachers, the bill states that most will have to turn to long-term substitutes or lateral-entry teachers who lack the classroom management skills regular teachers have.
The mandate also will place “tremendous financial pressure” on counties to ensure schools have adequate facilities for the extra teachers, according to the bill. Without new resources, the mandate will also force school districts to divert teachers from areas such as art, music and physical education to elementary school classrooms.
Smith said public support is growing for either funding the class-size mandate or relaxing it slightly as Senate Bill 703 would do.
“I am more optimistic that the opportunity (for relaxing the mandate) is better now than it was before,” Smith said.
The tide may be turning because of data coming in from school districts and because more parents are getting involved in the issue, she said. Parents, teachers, activists and education policy groups have been flooding legislators with calls about the mandate, marching outside the legislative building and visiting individual legislators, she said.
“I understand the push for smaller class sizes,” Smith said. But the General Assembly thus far has not allocated enough money to ensure school facilities can handle smaller class sizes, she said.
“The goal is to move toward smaller class sizes,” Smith said. “But we need to do some additional work beore we can mandate this in the 2018-2019 year.”
SB 703 is similar to a bill that already passed the state House. State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said he supports the goals of Senate Bill 703, adding that either a funding mechanism needs to be put in place or the standards need to be relaxed.
“I’m in support of this situation being addressed,” he said.
State Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, however, said some school districts have been diverting money intended for lowering class sizes to other priorities.
"For decades, research has shown that lowering class sizes in the early grades — by reducing student-to-teacher ratios -— leads to improved academic outcomes for students,” Cook said Friday in a statement released by his office. “That’s why it’s been one of Senate Republicans’ top priorities for years.”
“In fact, since 2014, local school districts across the state have received roughly $222 million to reduce those ratios — and every year, they are guaranteed about $70 million in recurring dollars,” Cook added. But he said many school districts have not been spending the money for its intended purpose.
“Thus, during this past session, we passed compromise legislation that requires local school systems to stop diverting money intended for lower student-to-teacher ratios starting next year, while addressing many systems’ concerns about unintended potential consequences of implementation,” said Cook, whose district includes Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden and Currituck counties.
Part of the compromise, Cook said, requires school districts to provide information to lawmakers on both class size and how they spend money designated for teachers. Districts had to provide that information in October and will do so again in February, he said.
“We need to review the data before determining any next steps — and we won’t know the full picture until we receive more information in February," he said.
Steinburg said while some legislators continue to point out that school districts put class-reduction money to other uses, the reality remains that the class-size mandate poses a hardship for many area school districts.
“The need is real and it needs to be addressed,” Steinburg said.
The class-size requirement was established with the best of intentions but it was done without a lot of thought being given to funding, Steinburg said,
Educators and legislators agree it’s good to have smaller class sizes in grades K-3, Steinburg said, but he doesn’t see how the state can force school districts to reduce class sizes when many already are on very tight budgets.
“There has got to be a funding mechanism,” Steinburg said.