The idea of mandating smaller class sizes for North Carolina public elementary schools feels like a no-brainer. As a professor of education, I agree with those who point out the research is clear. When Tennessee implemented a vast class size experiment, randomly assigning some students to classes of 17 students and others to classes of 25, they learned that small class assignment substantially improves student learning. This was particularly true for poor and minority students. What’s more, teachers, parents, and students all love the idea of smaller class sizes. So, the General Assembly’s move to reduce maximum class sizes in K-3 classrooms across the state from 24 students to 19 to 21 (depending on the grade level) seemed utterly sensible. After all, what could go wrong?
Plenty. First, to demand smaller classes without additional budget requires schools to make serious cuts in existing programs. Second, the implementation of this idea in other states has shown that budget decisions work best for students when they’re made at a school level, not by politicians looking for a talking point about how they reduced class size.
This spring, school leaders across the state are anxiously trying to figure out how to stretch budgets that are already insufficient in order to meet the General Assembly’s unfunded class size reduction mandate. As The News & Observer reported on March 4, since the legislature provided no new funding to help meet the new class size requirements, the mandates force harsh cuts elsewhere in school budgets. Wake County Public Schools would need to hire 460 new teachers in order to meet the requirement. Durham is projecting a $6.3 million budget shortfall. To meet this shortfall, elementary art, music, and PE teacher jobs are on the cutting block across the state.
The North Carolina House, recognizing that the original law was ill-considered and that smaller class sizes can’t be bought on the cheap, has passed an amended HB 13, which substantially relaxes the class size mandate. But that amendment is languishing in the state Senate, where the Education Committee’s leadership has delayed the vote. Committee co-chairman Chad Barefoot in particular questions the choices that school districts make when given discretion over the use of state funds.
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As North Carolina’s state Senators plan their next move, I’d encourage them to consider a 20-year-old story from California’s educational policy history. In 1996, motivated by the same research that informed North Carolina’s class size reduction efforts, the California legislature passed a law aiming to shrink K-3 class sizes to a maximum of 20 students. Unlike North Carolina, California didn’t pursue this goal via unfunded mandate. Rather, the state allocated $1 billion to be distributed to schools that reduced class sizes. Schools moved quickly to claim the funds, hiring teachers and splitting classes left and right. But much to everybody’s surprise, the state’s test scores stagnated and nobody could find any evidence to suggest that the class size reductions improved California schools.
What happened? Why, if we know that students learn more in smaller classes, did California’s well-funded class size reduction effort fail to improve student learning? And what can North Carolina legislators learn from California’s experience?
It turns out that hiring teachers to staff smaller classes is easy, but hiring qualified teachers is tough. In California, the class size reduction effort had massive unintended consequences for teacher quality as schools turned, en masse, to uncredentialled and minimally qualified teachers. News reports described workers coming off the night shift to teach in California classrooms, snoozing at their desks as first graders were left to fend for themselves educationally.
The lesson of California’s failed class size reduction effort is one that small government advocates in North Carolina’s state legislature should know well. Even the most well-intentioned legislative interventions can go wrong in any one of a million ways. It’s entirely appropriate in a democracy for the public to articulate standards, set ambitious goals, and allocate resources to help our public schools. But legislators simply cannot understand and respond to the diverse local contexts in which North Carolina’s educational leaders work.
We ought to show our teachers and principals the respect they deserve by giving them the flexibility they need to do their jobs well. Rather than repeating the mistakes of California’s legislature, the North Carolina state legislature should stop micromanaging the state’s public schools. The House’s amended HB 13 takes an important step in that direction by relaxing the class size mandate. The Senate should act immediately to pass this amendment.
Thurston Domina is an associate professor of educational policy and sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill