School advocacy groups became more hopeful Friday that the Senate would act soon on a bill that school districts say is needed to prevent thousands of potential teacher layoffs and cuts in art, music and physical education classes in North Carolina elementary schools.
House Bill 13, which school officials say would allow them to save arts and PE classes, was referred Friday from the Senate Rules Committee to the Senate Education Committee. The legislative change came two days after several hundred people rallied on the Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh to demand that the Senate quickly approve House Bill 13.
Requests for comment were not immediately returned Friday by the offices of Senate Leader Phil Berger and Sen. Chad Barefoot, co-chairman of the Education Committee.
But groups that have been lobbying for HB 13 cheered the news Friday and called on supporters to lobby the Education Committee, which meets Monday but is not scheduled to discuss the legislation.
State lawmakers lowered maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students as part of last year’s budget. School officials say the change, which goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year, removes their flexibility to pay specialists such as art, music, foreign language and physical education teachers out of the state dollars provided for regular classroom teachers.
Many school districts have supported HB 13, which would reduce K-3 class sizes to as few as 22 students. Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill said the district would need $1.8 million more to hire 32 additional teachers if HB 13 passes, compared with $26 million more and 460 extra teachers if the new rules go into effect.
The bill was unanimously approved by the House in February, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate. It had been sitting for the past two months in the Senate Rules Committee, where legislation often is sent to die.
Senate leaders have accused school districts of diverting the money meant to reduce class sizes, a charge denied by school leaders.
Pressure has intensified in recent weeks with school districts, which are working on their 2017-18 budgets, talking about funding the new K-3 teachers by eliminating arts programs. They may lay off many specialized teachers who don’t have the needed state certification to teach regular K-3 classes.
Fears escalated this week when Merrill said options in Wake to deal with the class-size change include increasing class sizes for older students, cutting art and music classes, laying off teachers and reassigning students. He said Wake might also have to put as many as 40 students in K-3 classrooms with two teachers to try to comply with the new state requirements.