NC bill would eliminate class-size limits

khui@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2013 

  • Average class sizes
    DistrictKindergartenFirst gradeSecond gradeThird grade
    Chapel Hill-Carrboro20212021
    Source: 2011-12 NC Report Card

After a push begun more than a decade ago to reduce class sizes for North Carolina’s youngest students, public schools could soon pack as many students as they want in a class.

Supporters of legislation endorsed by key lawmakers say doing away with limits on class sizes will allow each school district to decide how best to spend state funding for teacher positions. But critics say the bill will cause districts to assign more students per teacher, moving the state’s public schools away from the academic benefits gained by having smaller classes.

Larger classes could also come at the same time that Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed eliminating funding for teacher assistants in second and third grades. The bill, S374, will be discussed Wednesday by the state Senate’s Education Committee.

“Why should we tell schools what’s the best way to spend their money?” said state Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Randolph County Republican who is a primary sponsor of the bill and co-chairman of the Education Committee. “We need to put the decision in the hands of the people who are running the schools.”

Other bill sponsors include Sen. Dan Soucek, a Watauga County Republican and co-chairman of the Education Committee, and Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican and vice chairman of the Education Committee.

The bill would formalize changes made in 2009 that dropped class-size limits in grades four through 12 and gave school districts more flexibility to transfer funds. But for the first time, the bill also would drop restrictions that limit class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 24 students in individual classes.

The state provides funding for one teacher for every 18 students in kindergarten through third grade. That funding covers all teachers, including instructors of art, music and physical education. That means actual class sizes are larger.

Choosing sides

The bill is pitting educators against school boards. The legislation is supported by the N.C. School Boards Association but is opposed by the N.C. Association of Educators.

“To open the floodgates for large class sizes will not help student achievement,” Rodney Ellis, president of NCAE, said.

The main reason cited for limiting class sizes has been research that shows that student achievement improves in smaller classes – especially when the numbers drop to between 15 and 17. Teachers and principals have said that any reduction in the number of students allows more individual attention for students, improves teachers’ morale and gives greater satisfaction to parents.

“I don’t see how people can say larger classes help students succeed,” Ellis said.

The bill’s language states that dropping the class size limits will give districts the opportunity “to maximize student achievement” by deciding how best to use their state-funded teacher positions.

Tillman said that local school officials who feel they can improve achievement by raising class sizes to use the money for some other educational purpose should be given the opportunity. If districts don’t raise achievement after raising class sizes, he said that they should be held accountable.

“If they’re getting results, I don’t care,” he said.

Supporters of the bill also say that the state’s class sizes have never gotten small enough to get to the big gains found in research.

“The research shows that you really need to get it down to 15 for it to really work and that’s never happened,” said Leanne Winner, the lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association.

Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, said the bill will let districts lower class sizes for at-risk students while having larger ones for kids who don’t need as much help.

10+ years of smaller classes

The current K-3 class size limits were set in the early 2000s as one of the education initiatives of then-Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat. Before Easley, classes could include as many as 26 students in kindergarten through second grade, and 29 in third grade.

Winner said she doesn’t expect class sizes to rise much if the bill passes. Instead, she said, it will ease the pressure on school districts that have been forced to make upper-grade classes larger than they’d like to keep the numbers down for younger students.

But critics say they fear that large increases in class sizes will result from what could be a tight state budget this year.

Alexandra Sirota, director of the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center, a liberal think tank in Raleigh, said that low-wealth school districts most affected by state budget cuts will be most likely to raise their class sizes as a result .

Chris Hill, director of the Justice Center’s Education & Law Project, said he agreed with bill supporters that superintendents should be given more budget flexibility. But he said the problem is school districts don’t get enough state funding to make that flexibility useful.

“To enhance student performance, we need to have smaller class sizes, and to ensure that schools receive enough funding,” he said. “Superintendents shouldn’t have to make hard decisions about raising class sizes.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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