Raleigh, N.C. — A bill approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee would end a decade-old policy of restricting classes in kindergarten through third grade to no more than 24 students.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, committee co-chairman and a leading sponsor of Senate Bill 374, said the legislation is designed to give school districts more flexibility in how they spend their limited resources rather than dictating that elementary schools hire enough teachers to accommodate the class-size cap.
"I don't know if 10 kids in a classroom is better than 15 or not," said Tillman, R-Randolph, a retired school administrator. "I don't know what the ideal number is, and neither do you."
Former Gov. Mike Easley backed limiting the size of classes after he was elected in 2000 as a way to improve student performance. Educators say research indicates that a student-teacher ratio of about 15:1 provides the needed individual attention for young students to boost achievement.
Tillman said each school and each district has distinct needs, and administrators shouldn't have their hands tied in how they meet those needs as long as they succeed in that task.
"Get me results, and I don't care," he said. "If you have 30 or 13 (students in a class), I care less. I do care whether you made progress or not, and we're going to grade you on that."
The bill also calls for districts to post information online each summer of how they spent state money to achieve local educational priorities.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, expressed concern about the impact on poorer districts. Giving administrators carte blanche on how to spend money could hurt students when there's not much to go around in the first place, she said.
The proposal split two traditional educational allies.
Brian Lewis, political director for the North Carolina Association of Educators, warned that larger elementary school classes could leave teachers scrambling, especially if lawmakers approve Gov. Pat McCrory's proposal to eliminate thousands of teaching assistant positions in next year's state budget.
"We are cutting more resources and allowing school districts to cut more resources from the classroom," said Lewis, who called for a handful of districts to experiment with spending flexibility before implementing the idea statewide.
Leanne Winner, government relations director for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said districts need more flexibility in tight budget times. Many districts would prefer to have smaller classes in reading and math but larger classes for other subjects, she said.
"We hope you will give us this flexibility. We think it will aid our districts in helping children in their education," Winner said.
The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.