Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers are aiming to ease the effect of a scheduled reduction in elementary school class sizes next school year, but the proposal was already carrying political baggage before it emerged from its first committee meeting Tuesday.
Currently, school districts have some flexibility to make their average class size slightly larger than the size state officials use to calculate how many teachers to fund for each district. Historically, local school officials have used that flexibility to create and pay for teaching positions in non-core areas such as physical education, music, art and languages and to help delay the need to build new classrooms when enrollment is higher than expected.
However, last year’s budget bill included a provision taking away that flexibility for class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, beginning in the 2017-18 school year.
All teachers funded by state allotment would be required to teach in core areas, and class sizes would have a hard cap, which would require most districts to add classrooms through the use of mobile units, new construction or splitting up areas currently used for other purposes, such as gymnasiums or cafeterias.
School district leaders around the state have called on state lawmakers either to put the provision on hold for a time or to restore their current flexibility to exceed the cap.
House Bill 13 does the latter. It doesn’t change the lowered class size targets in K-3, but it allows school districts’ average class size to exceed those targets by up to three students and allows individual classrooms to exceed the target size by up to six students, if needed.
Bill sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the budget provision would have required his county’s school district to add or repurpose 48 teaching positions and find 21 new classrooms at a cost of over $3 million next school year.
"This isn’t a total fix because we don’t know exactly what the enrollment will be in whatever grades in the future," McGrady told the House K-12 Education Committee on Tuesday. "This is a fix that will get us a long way there, give the (districts) some flexibility."
McGrady noted that the proposal has no opposition from any group in the education community and has bipartisan support.
"The key is going to be trying to move this ball as quickly as possible so that boards of education and county commissioners who are setting their budgets very soon can factor in the change here," he told the panel.
While no one on the committee spoke against the measure, some members expressed concern about its potential political fallout in the 2018 election, still a year and nine months away.
"I’ve been told by people outside this complex that this amounts to an increase in class sizes," said Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, "and it will be dictated that way in the upcoming elections – that we increased class sizes."
Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, agreed, warning of "political attempts from the news media or other people who have such an appetite for politicizing things like this."
"What we’re doing is a sincere attempt to reinstate historically what educators have been asking for, and that should belie any attempts to turn this issue into a political issue," Dixon said. "But of course, it won’t. We will see that we’re increasing class sizes."
McGrady said that would be factually inaccurate.
"We’re more or less going back to where we are now. In fact, to some extent, there’s going to be a decrease in class size. It’s just an effort to give the (districts) more flexibility. I think that’s what our aim is here," he responded.
"This goes back to a historical precedent," agreed committee Co-chairman Rep. Jeff Elmore, R-Wilkes. "It still has a class-size reduction component. It’s just not as quick."
The proposal passed on a unanimous voice vote and will next be heard in the House Appropriations Committee, although the bill does not contain any additional funding.