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Alexander: Legislature to take up class size issue in March

Posted January 18, 2018 2:56 p.m. EST
Updated January 19, 2018 1:16 p.m. EST

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— Expect the state legislature to be in session this March and for it to take up school system concerns with class size restrictions that could otherwise trigger major changes for Wake County students, Sen. John Alexander, R-Wake, said Thursday.

Alexander said he's been getting hundreds of emails on the issue "for a while" and that there's general agreement among state Senate leadership that, "Yes, we do need to come back in March on this." Whether a change would include more funding or another delay to K-3 class size restrictions set to kick in for the 2018-19 school year remains to be seen.

Update: A few hours after this piece posted, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's press office responded to WRAL requests with a statement from Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon who said senators "have not yet determined a specific timeline" to address this issue. More on that here.

Attempts Thursday to confirm plans for the legislature to be in session in March were not immediately successful. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's press office declined to say one way or the other. State Sen. Tamara Barringer, a fellow Wake Republican who met recently with Alexander and Wake County school officials on the class size issue, said she wasn't "in a position to comment" on the timing but that she was "certainly hopeful that we will craft a solution to this crisis."

A March meeting would fit, though. The legislature is due to receive enrollment and other information from school districts around the state by the end of February, a data dive it ordered as part of a bill that passed last year delaying the class size changes for a year.

Berger's office said earlier this month that he wanted to see that data before taking other steps.

The schedule also jibes with previous comments from state Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who chairs the House K-12 Education Committee and said to expect some resolution on the issue by April. The House proposed language to address class size concerns when the legislature tweaked the state budget in October, but Senate leadership didn't agree.

The legislature is in session indefinitely now, in part because it's waiting for final word from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether lawmakers must redraw North Carolina's congressional districts after a lower court deemed its last effort an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. Leaders have not said when this called session will wrap.

The legislature voted two years ago to lower class size maximums for kindergarten through third grade, in part to boost literacy gains. The law set up a sliding scale, with maximums of one teacher per 16 to 18 students in those classrooms. Faced with concerns that schools wouldn't be ready for the change this year, the legislature decided last summer to give systems until the 2018-19 school year to implement the caps.

The current maximum average for K-3 classes is 20 students, with allowances for individual classes to have as many as 23 students. School district leaders have said they would have to cancel elective classes, such as music and art, to meet the requirements. They might also have to increase class sizes in fourth grade and up, build new classrooms, add trailers to schools, rework school district lines or make other changes to meet the requirements, which many school leaders contend were not properly funded.

Senate leadership pushed back on that argument, saying the funding's there for lower class sizes. Alexander said Thursday that the issue is different county to county, and he noted Wake County's consistent population growth.

The prospect of a March session on this issue was first reported by NC Policy Watch, based on an email from Alexander.