‘We’re not going away.’ Rally urges lawmakers to fund K-3 class-size reductions

Despite the cold, ‘Class Size Chaos’ rally draws hundreds

Parents, students and educators gathered on Halifax Mall on Saturday to rally against the General Assembly’s class-size reduction mandate. The mandate, which is not funded, is set to take effect this year.
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Parents, students and educators gathered on Halifax Mall on Saturday to rally against the General Assembly’s class-size reduction mandate. The mandate, which is not funded, is set to take effect this year.

In North Carolina’s capital city, several hundred people gathered in subfreezing temperatures on Saturday afternoon to warm up their arguments against a lower class-size mandate set to take effect this year without additional state funds for new classrooms and teachers.

Parents, teachers, public school students and others rallied for nearly two hours on the grassy Halifax Mall outside lawmakers’ offices to raise awareness about an issue that could put school districts across the state in a position of having to cut arts, physical education and library programs, increase class sizes in grades 4-12 and possibly reassign teachers.

Bundled up in winter coats, scarves, hats and gloves, the ralliers cheered on a series of speakers, waving signs such as “Stop Class Chaos. Fund Our Public Schools!” and applauding messages such as “North Carolina school children deserve better.”

In 2016, the General Assembly passed a law calling for the average class sizes in kindergarten, first, second and third grades to be no higher than 17 students. While few at the Saturday event were opposed to smaller classes, they were upset that lawmakers had not provided school districts with the money to meet the lower goal.

Now school leaders across North Carolina are speaking out about the consequences, and they’re urging the lawmakers to either repeal the mandate in the special session scheduled to begin on Wednesday or come up with the millions of dollars that school districts say they will need to add teachers, classes and classrooms.

“When it comes to the class-size mandate and to other education reforms, we keep hearing our legislators refer to ‘unintended consequences,’ ” said Justin Parmenter, a public school teacher, parent of children at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte and a fellow with Hope Street Group’s NC Teacher Voice Network. “Our leaders need to stop putting major education initiatives in the budget and then passing them with no transparency, committee process or public debate. ...The public has had enough of this practice of ramming through legislation so poorly conceived that it already needs to be overhauled before it’s even implemented.”

Millions of dollars

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school leaders told legislators this past week that it could cost $23 million to hire 353 more K-3 teachers to meet the new class sizes.

In Wake County, school officials say it would cost $24.6 million to hire 431 classroom teachers to get class sizes down. That would be in addition to a long list of other actions such as increasing class sizes in grades 4-12 to shift more teaching positions to the younger grades, limiting how many students can go to some schools, converting art and music rooms to regular classroom spaces, combining children of different grades into the same class and having two classes share the same room.

Some school districts have also warned that they might have to lay off art, music, physical education and computer science teachers to pay for the teachers who will be needed for the children in kindergarten through third grade.

The House had been willing to provide relief by delaying the changes by another year. But Senate Republican leaders have been balking at a delay, saying the smaller class sizes are needed to help younger students learn. Senate leaders also say that since 2014, local school districts have received roughly $222 million to lower class sizes.

Senate Republicans want to review the data that school districts will submit in February on class sizes before determining any next steps, Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said recently.

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Michelle Burton, who has worked as a librarian for 23 years, addresses the Class Size Chaos Rally crowd on Halifax Mall on January 6, 2017. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Michelle Burton, a public school library media specialist who has spent 23 years working in North Carolina — in Alamance, Wake and Durham counties — spoke at the rally about the value she sees in offering students a well-rounded education that includes arts, music, physical education and libraries full of books and information about a variety of topics.

“The General Assembly calls them enhancements,” Burton said before the rally. “I don’t call them enhancements. ...Reading, math, yes that’s important. But we want our children to be well-rounded people. Arts, music, P.E., that’s what makes a child truly educated.”

On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper urged lawmakers to address the issue in their special session scheduled for Wednesday. He made his remarks in Charlotte after a visit to Cotswold Elementary School in the Mecklenburg County school district and urged lawmakers to either fund the law or phase it in over time to take the pressure off school districts that need to know well before the new fiscal year begins in July how much financial support from the state they will have.

‘We can make change’

“I believe smaller class size can be a good thing, but you have to pay for it,” Cooper said. “This is an artificial class size change — one that shrinks classes on paper but in reality hurts students and teachers.”

Jen Mangrum, a former elementary school teacher and an associate professor in the UNC-Greensboro education department who has announced her candidacy against Senate leader Phil Berger, urged all at the rally not to be silent.

“When we are silent, those who make the rules believe that we accept and maybe even applaud the decisions they make,” Mangrum said. “I don’t know about you, I can only speak for myself, but as an educator for more than 30 years and the parent of a public school student, I spent many years being silent. I may have said a word or two under my breath or privately among my colleagues, but I didn’t speak out publicly.

“Remember, advocates speak out publicly,” Mangrum continued. “...When we state publicly that a mandate, like class size, is ineffective or even harmful to our children, and we speak out collectively, we can make change.”

Taylor Myers, a Warren County social studies teacher, said he came to rural North Carolina for his first teaching job from Appalachia roots in which his public school education provided him a path toward higher ambitions.

“I grew up in a low-income family,” Myers said. “Education was an opportunity for me.”

‘We’re not going to go away’

Myers said he understood restraints of budgets, both for lawmakers and teachers. But he thought it was important to rally on Saturday for the necessary funding if class-size reduction is a priority for lawmakers, and he did not think school systems should be put in the position of considering cuts to arts, music, physical education and other programs.

“The arts and humanities will enhance your perspective on the world,” Myers said.

Renee Sekel, a Wake County parent who organized the rally, looked out over the crowd promising to advocate for public school children with hopes that they would continue to spread the word about an issue that has attracted more attention in recent weeks. If lawmakers truly want smaller class sizes, as their mandate requires, Sekel and other parents hope the money to make it work will follow.

“What I keep saying is, ‘All we can do is ask,’ ” Sekel said. “We can make sure the legislature knows we see them, we see what they’re doing and we see what they’re not doing. And we’re not going to go away.”

The demonstrators left Halifax Mall on Saturday with plans to be back soon.

On Tuesday, they will send out blasts to lawmakers on social media and message boards.

On Wednesday, the special session is scheduled to open.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1