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Lawmakers to delay, phase in class-size caps

Posted February 8, 2018 1:16 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:48 p.m. EDT

— Republican legislative leaders Thursday announced they've reached an agreement on a fix to problems created by capping class sizes in early grades, but they've attached it to provisions Democrats are calling a poison pill.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger made an unusual joint appearance at a news conference to unveil the deal, which would delay by four years the requirement that schools reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

"Make no mistake, we are determined to lower the average class size," said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, chairman of the House K-12 Education Committee. "We're just going to stage it out rather than in one fell swoop."

The mandate, enacted in 2016, was already partially delayed once for the 2017-18 school year. House lawmakers pushed in October to extend the delay for next school year as well, but Senate leaders have refused to consider it until now.

"If you force an unfunded mandate on schools, then what they have to do is to find more teachers for K-3 [and] they have to find more classroom space for K-3," Gov. Roy Cooper said during a visit to Baldwin Elementary School in Hope Mills before the deal was announced. "You fund that class size mandate, if it is a priority to you, but you also look at how it could be phased in so that it is more workable."

Under the proposed legislation, which still must clear the General Assembly and be signed into law by Cooper, no changes to class sizes will be made in the 2018-19 school year, and the caps will then be phased in until the 2021-22 school year, said Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Franklin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Lawmakers also would appropriate $60 million a year over the next four years to pay for teachers in art, music and other non-core classes.

School districts have said hiring more teachers to create smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade would force them to cut back on non-core classes for both budgetary and space reasons.

"Everything our schools had this year and got by just fine on, they will have again next year. Plus, they will have an additional $60 million for enhancement teachers on top of that," Barefoot said.

The Senate was reluctant to address the class size problem until lawmakers collected information on the number of non-core, or enhancement, teachers statewide, he said. Until the 1990s, he noted, the state had separate appropriations for regular classroom teachers and enhancement teachers, but over the last two decades, they have been combined into one funding stream, making it harder to lower class sizes in core courses without affecting non-core courses.

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, praised the proposal for its "reasonable timeline" to implement the class size changes and the extra funding for enhancement teachers.

The measure also includes $82 million to $91 million a year to expand the state's pre-kindergarten program enough to eliminate the waiting list for slots in the program.

"We've all heard that term 'garbage in, garbage out' when computer first came in. How about 'good people in, good people out,'" Horn said. "A child who is ready to start school, we've got a much better chance for achievement in first, second, third grade."

But two provisions in the bill rankled Democrats.

One would divide the funds from a $57.8 million fund linked to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline among school districts in the eight North Carolina counties the natural gas pipeline will traverse. The second deals with the composition of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and is completely unrelated to education funding.

The $5 billion pipeline will run 600 miles from West Virginia to southeast North Carolina and run through Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson counties. Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, which will own and operate the pipeline gave the state $57.8 million for a mitigation fund that, according to the Governor's Office, would be used to lessen any environmental damage caused by the project, advance renewable energy initiatives and promote economic development in the eight counties.

The state Supreme Court last month ruled for Cooper in a fight with lawmakers over the merged elections and ethics board, giving him more power over appointments to the board. Lawmakers now want to add a ninth seat to the combined board, changing the four-four split between Democrats and Republicans by adding an unaffiliated voter nominated by the other eight members to the mix.

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Gilbert Baez, WRAL reporter, contributed to this story