Education groups are increasing pressure on state lawmakers to pass legislation they say is needed to avoid potentially laying off as many as 4,500 art, music, physical education and foreign language teachers.
North Carolina school leaders say they may have to cut art, music, physical education and foreign language classes in elementary schools to help pay for new smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade that are supposed to start in July.
The N.C. Association of Educators called on the state Senate Thursday to quickly pass House Bill 13 to provide some relief from the new K-3 class size limits. The bill unanimously passed in the House but has stalled in the Senate.
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“Many of our state’s public school teachers are on edge about whether or not they’ll have a job at the end of the school year,” said Mark Jewell, president of NCAE, at a news conference in front of the Legislative Building. “Living with this kind of fear and uncertainty is not productive for educators, and it’s not productive for our students, our public schools and our public school administrators.”
Jewell presented a petition Thursday with more than 5,000 signatures calling for passage of House Bill 13 to the offices of Senate Leader Phil Berger and Sen. Chad Barefoot, co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
At issue is how school systems pay for teachers in these special-area courses and how it ties into state class size limits.
As part of the state budget adopted last year, maximum individual K-3 class sizes will drop from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students this fall. The maximum average K-3 class sizes for school districts will drop from 21 students to between 16 and 18 students.
House Bill 13 would cap individual K-3 class sizes at 22 to 24 students. Maximum average class sizes would range from 19 to 21 students.
North Carolina doesn’t separately fund specialists such as arts and PE teachers, so school districts pay for them out of state dollars for regular classroom teachers. School officials have said House Bill 13 would provide them with enough flexibility to continue to spread money around to offer the special classes.
After the House quickly moved to pass the legislation in February, it was parked by the Senate in its Rules Committee.
“The Senate can be a hero for the people of North Carolina,” said Renee Sekel, a Cary parent who formed a Facebook group to organize parents to get House Bill 13 passed. “As a parent I can’t see why they wouldn’t do this simple thing to be heroes to the people of North Carolina.”
But Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican, pointed Thursday to a DPI report showing how there are K-3 classrooms across the state that are above the current 24-student limit.
“We are concerned that DPI continues to report that Wake County has seven schools with average class sizes not just in excess of the funded class size ratios, but in excess of the 24 child absolute allowable maximum under a DPI waiver,” Barefoot said in a written statement. “This shows why we need to increase accountability and make sure that students are not being taught in classes far above the 1:17 ratio that taxpayers fund.”
Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation, said Republican senators are distrustful of the way school districts have used state money. But Stoops said he’s surprised the Senate hasn’t passed House Bill 13 yet.
“From both a policy and political standpoint, the passage of House Bill 13 is probably overdue,” Stoops said. “But that doesn’t mean that’s the end of the issue. I think the Senate just wants to make sure that before they pass House Bill 13, they exhaust all the options that are out there.”
With House Bill 13 stuck in limbo, school leaders have increasingly warned that layoffs may be coming because they’re working on budgets for the upcoming school year.
“The longer they wait, the more in jeopardy our employees become, and that’s not fair to our employees,” Wake school board member Bill Fletcher said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “It may be great politics, but it’s not fair to our employees.”
Fletcher accused state lawmakers of taking away the flexibility principals need to meet the needs of their students.
“The legislature has inserted themselves in the place of the principals in our elementary schools,” he said. “That’s not where they need to be. HB13 is a partial repeal of that intrusion.”
In Wake County, school administrators have said meeting the new class sizes could require hiring 460 additional K-3 teachers. It could cost $26 million more in local funding unless Wake were to consider cuts such as laying off some of the specialized teachers.
Tim Simmons, a Wake schools spokesman, said the district hasn’t been able to provide details yet to principals on art, music and PE programs for this fall.
If cuts are made, state law says “instruction shall be offered” in the areas of arts and physical education. But elementary schools are not required to offer the subjects, as it’s left up to districts to decide what courses to offer.
Tamika Walker Kelly, a music teacher at Morganton Road Elementary School in Fayetteville, said it would be a sad day for education if the arts aren’t offered. She said at Thursday’s NCAE news conference that the arts allow students to blossom and have the foundational skills they’ll need.
“We must give our children knowledge and understanding of civilization’s most profound works,” Walker Kelly said. “We here in North Carolina must give our students the opportunity to learn and explore the arts to benefit our schools, our community and our state.”