Editorial: Legislature needs to stop posturing and fully fund the mandate to cut school class size
Posted February 10
A CBC Editorial: Friday, Feb. 10, 2017; Editorial# 8123
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company
The state legislature’s hand-wringing and hoop-jumping over early-grade classroom size in our public schools is more about avoiding the issue than confronting it.
Last year -- with little public discussion, hearings or input from teachers or school administrators – legislative bosses stealthily injected into the massive state budget bill a mandated cut in how many students should be in kindergarten through third grade classrooms.
It’s not a bad idea. But like much of what the General Assembly’s done in recent years, it was cooked up in back rooms where there is little opportunity or concern to grasp all the consequences – intended or unintended.
Maybe it was as boxer Muhammad Ali might observe, a political “rope-a-dope”: pretending to being doing something for education, but all just creating a legislative mirage.
Whatever. But in this case the consequence is a $300-million unfunded mandate dropped on local school districts around the state – $27 million for Wake County; $23 million in Mecklenburg County; $17 million in Guilford County; and even $2.5 million in Henderson County, the home of Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican who is sponsoring a bill that is supposed to, for the time, solve the problem.
Amid an outpouring of complaints, the legislature’s latest effort dodges the core issue with a non-solution, solution. McGrady’s bill essentially keeps the mandate but adds “local flexibility” allowing class sizes larger than the legislated limits -- rendering the requirement meaningless.
The mandate has put instructional quality in jeopardy as school systems have been forced to contemplate eliminating arts, music and physical education instruction as well as increasing class size in upper grades.
Rather than just kicking this can down the road, pretending to address an issue but really just leaving it to fester, how about showing some resolve and gumption?
And just Thursday, there appears to be some effort to force the legislature to take some substantive action. Several of the state’s top business leaders announced an effort to focus on getting early learners to better grasp basic skills and implement systems to track progress and enable early intervention for students who are facing challenges. The objective is to make sure that school children show they’ve grasped, by the end of the third grade, the ability to read well.
The state’s members of the Business Roundtable, led by SAS CEO Jim Goodnight, N.C. AT&T President Vanessa Harrison –who is also vice chair of the N.C. Chamber of Commerce, and Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, say they’re going to meet with state leaders to press their agenda. We want them to make sure they bring along N.C. Chamber of Commerce President Lew Ebert to demonstrate to legislators the business community is united, determined and demands legislators provide the funding needed for top quality education. Adequate won’t cut it.
They can start by backing a simple solution to the class-size challenge: Fully fund the mandate! Pay for the educational upgrade for North Carolina’s youngest students so by the third grade they are capable readers and won’t be left behind.
It would require about 6,000 teachers statewide – including 48 more in McGrady’s Henderson County.
The state has the money.
There is $1.6 billion in the state’s “rainy day” fund. Even Noah wouldn’t put a dent in all that. If public education and cutting class size to improve reading and other basic skills is a priority, there’s no better way to show it.
And for those who might be jittery about the spending, the state’s revenue forecasters just this week predicted the state budget surplus will exceed $552 million.
Just as a quality education system is the top driver for economic development, reducing class size – giving teachers greater opportunity to focus on individuals – is the basic ingredient to improving student performance.
Legislators need to do the right thing. If they are serious about doing something to improve education, and not just paying lip service, they must fully fund their class size mandate. Any less sets schools up for failure and dooms our students to mediocrity.