JULIE VON HAEFEN: Failure to fund class-size mandate will hurt N.C. schools' learning environment

Posted January 11, 2018 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated January 11, 2018 8:27 a.m. EST

Classroom, students seated, kindergarten

EDITOR'S NOTE: Julie von Haefen serves as the President of the Wake County PTA Council and as the Advocacy Chair of the North Carolina PTA.

Think back to your days in elementary school. Which experiences stand out? Chances are your memories include an art class where you created your first sculpture, a gym class where you played dodgeball with friends or a music class where you learned “Hot Cross Buns” on a recorder. I fear that the impending North Carolina class size mandate for grades K-3 may not allow children to have these same school experiences.

As a parent of three children in Wake County public schools and as a Wake County PTA leader and member, I am deeply concerned about the impending legislation which will affect my children and all children in North Carolina.

Some parents have asked me: “Aren’t small classes a good thing? How can you be opposed to only having 17 students in a kindergarten class?”

We can all agree that small K-3 class sizes are good for our kids and do have benefit. But, this unfunded mandate has consequences which will adversely affect students, diminish their educational experience and negatively affect their learning environments. The costs are simply too high for our children.

I have heard from parents, teachers and other PTA leaders from across Wake County about the potential effects of the unfunded mandate including increased class sizes of 30-35 kids in fourth and fifth grade, art classes taught from a rolling cart, the elimination of music classes and school enrollments capped. Parents are worried about school assignment changes as the district struggles to find places to shift approximately 9,500 students as a result of this mandate.

Although I represent PTA members in Wake County, I have also heard from members across the state in my role as the North Carolina PTA Advocacy Chair about their concerns regarding the mandate. The costs will be felt by children all across North Carolina -- in every school -- urban or rural, and in every classroom, pre-K to high school. NCPTA recently passed a resolution urging legislators to take action on this issue after receiving feedback from a member survey which showed evidence of these far reaching and devastating effects.

In urban districts like the Wake County Public School System, we are already having trouble keeping up with local growth and the influx of new students. Adding an unfunded class size mandate to districts with high levels of growth is an untenable situation. In many districts, the schools are already overcrowded and operating at capacity.

In Wake County, we would have to build 14 new elementary schools by August to comply with the mandate. The short term logistics of creating physical space for these classrooms in high growth districts is extremely challenging, if not impossible.

PTAs in lower growth, rural areas are also worried about the mandate. In rural districts, schools are already struggling to hire enough qualified teachers and consistently have teacher shortages. With a class size mandate which may require the district to add more classrooms, those schools will have an even harder time filling teaching positions. Some rural districts are looking at eliminating essential pre-K programs in order to pay for the additional teachers they will need to comply with the mandate.

The mandate also affects our middle schools and high schools. With a single allotment to pay for teaching positions, if a district must shift money to pay for more K-3 teachers, middle and high school teaching positions may suffer, causing cutbacks and increased class sizes all the way up to 12th grade. Middle and high schools could lose electives and other non-core curriculum classes in order to pay for the class size mandate.

The funding allotment also puts K-12 non-core curriculum specialist teachers at risk. Art, music, PE and language teachers are also paid from this funding allotment. If more is used to pay K-3 classroom teachers, there is a potential for thousands of layoffs of those specialist teachers across the state. Specialized instruction in physical education and the arts is central to learning and an important element of a child’s education.

The PTA mission is to speak with one voice for every child. PTA members will continue to advocate for our children, teachers and families in Wake County and North Carolina. A fix to this issue needs to happen quickly. School districts around the state are in the budgeting and planning process for 2018-2019.

Administrators can not wait until the short legislative session scheduled to begin in May. If you are concerned about the effects this mandate will have on students, teachers and our community, please contact your NC Senate and House members and urge them to fix the impending “class size chaos,” once and for all. Help us protect a high quality, well-rounded education for all our students.

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