Education

Despite many pleas to delay ‘class size chaos,’ NC lawmakers are unmoved

Hundreds rally for school class-size bill HB13

Hundreds rallied at Halifax Mall in Raleigh urging the NC Senate to pass House Bill 13 Wednesday, April 19, 2017. School districts around the state say arts and PE programs are at risk because they lost their flexibility to fund them when state le
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Hundreds rallied at Halifax Mall in Raleigh urging the NC Senate to pass House Bill 13 Wednesday, April 19, 2017. School districts around the state say arts and PE programs are at risk because they lost their flexibility to fund them when state le

An effort to delay new smaller elementary school class sizes that school districts have warned could lead to actions such as losing art and music classes and students changing schools died in the state legislature this week.

State House members dropped Wednesday a plan to delay the new class sizes set to begin in 2018 after the Senate objected to the change. Lawmakers are now talking about potentially revisiting the issue in the spring, a time when schools are busy planning for next school year.

“I’m clearly frustrated and at this point the Senate’s position and the Senate’s action is literally indefensible,” said Renee Sekel, a Cary parent who helped organize a rally Tuesday outside the Legislative Building calling for lawmakers to “fix” the class-size issue. “There’s no logical or truthful argument that can be made against changing the class-size law.”

In addition to the rally, several groups held a “tweet storm” on Wednesday afternoon urging people to go on Twitter to ask state lawmakers to address the “class size chaos.”

Elementary schools around North Carolina are preparing to implement a new requirement that starts next school year that drops average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to roughly 17 students. It was at 21 students last year.

Senate Republican leaders say the smaller class sizes are needed to help younger students learn. They’ve accused school districts of not properly using the money that’s been given to them over the years to reduce class sizes.

“I don’t imagine we’re going to do much to change the class size,” said Sen. Harry Brown of Jacksonville, who is the Republican majority leader. “I think we’ve made it pretty clear what we feel on the class size.”

School districts have warned that they might have to cut art, music and physical education teachers to come up with the money to hire more K-3 teachers. School leaders have also raised concerns about their ability to find space for the thousands of new classrooms needed.

Amid the concerns, the General Assembly agreed this year to delay the new class sizes until 2018 and to study providing state funding to separately fund arts and physical education teachers.

North Carolina elementary schools are facing tough choices to find enough classrooms to meet smaller state-mandated K-3 class sizes. At Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, several elective teachers lost their classrooms and now carry thei

As districts prepare for the changes, Wake County school leaders have taken a variety of steps to limit how many students can attend some elementary schools to keep their class sizes down. Elementary schools are also planning to take steps such as converting art and music rooms to regular classrooms, putting two classes in the same room, combining classes with students from different grade levels and increasing class sizes for fourth and fifth grades.

Amid the lobbying from school districts and parents, the House Appropriations Committee had planned Wednesday to consider a bill making technical corrections to the budget. Among the changes would have been to delay next year’s implementation of the smaller class sizes.

After behind-the-scenes negotiations, the House and Senate held a joint appropriations committee meeting Wednesday night on a technical corrections bill that didn’t include the new K-3 class-size wording. The House wording would have “taken the teeth” out of the class-size reductions, according to Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale, who is the Republican majority whip.

“In the lower grades, it’s critical for smaller class sizes,” said Tillman, a retired school administrator. “That’s why we didn’t go along with the House bill.”

Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County and vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said they “can return and take an additional look at this important issue during next year’s budget cycle.”

Next year’s budget won’t be introduced until sometime after the short session begins in May.

The General Assembly wasted a “perfect opportunity” this week to address the class-size issue, according to Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat.

“The longer we wait, the more anxiety it creates for parents and children, and the more problems it creates for school boards around the state to comply with the law,” he said.

Colin Campbell of the N.C. Insider contributed to this report.

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

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