Elementary students take over NC senator’s office to push for more school funding

Durham elementary school students took over Sen. Chad Barefoot’s office on Wednesday for an art lesson and protest designed to urge state lawmakers to increase education funding.

Clipboards, drawing paper, pencils, markers and Lego bricks came out of containers as students parked themselves on Barefoot’s floor to design what they would want to see in a school. When not leading the architecture lesson, art teacher Malcolm Goff of E.K. Powe Elementary School in Durham talked to legislative staffers about how he wants North Carolina to be higher than 43rd in state per-pupil spending.

Barefoot was not in his office inside the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh. His staff said the Wake Forest Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee was at a meeting.

“It was really exciting,” said Ben Coleff, 8, a third-grade student at E.K. Powe Elementary. “This was my second political related event. It was fun to go inside this kind of building.”

The protestors are upset that state lawmakers only agreed to a one-year compromise on elementary school class-size cuts that doesn’t provide guaranteed funding for arts and physical education classes.

State legislators had initially voted to lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students starting this fall. But school districts complained that meeting the new class-size limits took away their flexibility to fund elementary school arts and PE classes.

The House had approved House Bill 13 in February to ease the class-size reductions to provide the flexibility that school districts said was needed. The Senate modified the bill to delay the class-size changes to the 2018-19 school year. It was signed into law last week.

Senate leaders also said they’d study funding arts and PE teachers but did not include the funding guarantee in the legislation. A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger reiterated the pledge this week.

But Jessica Tanner, a music teacher at E.K. Powe, said at Wednesday’s protest that the stop-gap wasn’t good enough. The protest was organized by the Community Alliance for Public Education and the Durham Association of Educators.

“I’m grateful to have a one-year reprieve, but that’s all it is,” Tanner said before protestors marched into Barefoot’s office. “Elementary arts, PE, music and language teachers are all going to be in jeopardy next year and every year until we begin properly funding public education here in North Carolina.”

Inside the Legislative Building, students imagined schools with features such as dark rooms, woodcraft design and creation studios and a go-kart track. As they worked, building staffers brought water to the students and their parents who watched from the hallway.

Nelson Kerr-Ritchie’s ideal school has a bowling alley, restaurant, football field and soccer field.

“I really enjoyed it because you got to be architects and make a classroom in a building so you used your imagination,” said Nelson, 9, a third-grade student at George Watts Montessori Magnet School in Durham.

Goff, the art teacher, quipped to one child that he wouldn’t be able to get what he wanted based on the state’s current school funding level.

“We wanted to make it more real for them what we do in school and what the children are doing,” he said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui