PTA groups are mobilizing against smaller K-3 class sizes in NC elementary schools

Smaller class sizes are great, PTA volunteer Ann Spencer told parents at Combs Elementary School on Monday, unless they lead to consequences such as losing art and music classrooms.

Spencer and other PTA volunteers at the Raleigh magnet school urged Combs parents waiting in the carpool line to lobby state lawmakers to back off from requiring smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade starting next year. Monday’s effort at Combs is just one example of how PTAs across North Carolina are mobilizing parents to advocate on the issue of class sizes.

“This is not just affecting Wake County,” Spencer said to fellow Combs parents as she walked along the line of more than 300 cars parked around the school. “This is affecting the whole state. We need to fix this for everybody. Please contact your legislators.”

PTA volunteers and other education groups are urging state lawmakers to act in the January special session to provide relief from the potential negative effects of reducing K-3 class sizes. Advocates don’t want lawmakers to wait until May because they say it will be too late to help the year-round schools that begin the new school year in July.

The state PTA is holding a webinar Thursday on how parents can advocate on the class-size issue.

“We feel like we have to speak out,” said Julie von Haefen, president of the Wake County PTA Council and chairwoman of the state PTA’s advocacy committee. “If we sit and wait around for it to happen, this won’t be good for any of our schools.”

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

The House had been willing to provide relief in October, but Senate Republican leaders balked at the change, saying the smaller class sizes are needed to help younger students learn.

“Giving up now could mean failing to help students receive more personalized instruction and improve their academic performance,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown said in a statement Monday. “Everyone should be able to agree that a system where teachers can focus more of their attention on fewer students should lead to better outcomes in our schools.”

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.

In Wake County, the state’s largest school district, school officials say it would cost $24.6 million to hire 431 classroom teachers to get class sizes down while still keeping art, music and physical education teachers.

Wake school officials say finding enough space is another problem. They’re making changes such as forcing some students to switch schools, placing enrollment limits on schools, converting art and music spaces to regular classrooms, raising class sizes in the upper grades to more than 30 students and having two different classes share a classroom at the same time.

“As a PTA, we’ve been watching our administration continue to prepare for the changes for next year and we’ve realized that there’s no way for them to meet these expectations without really drastically altering the quality of our school,” said Tappan Vickery, advocacy chairwoman of Combs’ PTA.

The Wake PTA Council has distributed a flier to school PTAs about the class-size changes. The Wake PTA Council and Public Schools First NC have been hosting informational meetings for individual school PTAs explaining the impact of the class-size changes and what they can do to advocate on the issue.

With the exception of not endorsing candidates, von Haefen said PTAs have a lot of flexibility in advocating on education issues. She said state lawmakers need to hear from parents about what could happen if the new class-size rules aren’t changed.

Several Wake school PTAs have already been actively reaching out to parents on the “Class Size Chaos” issue. Von Haefen said the Apex Elementary School PTA set up a website explaining how the smaller class sizes could hurt the school.

“We hope that with more pressure on lawmakers to take action on the issue that they will,” she said.

Despite the warnings, Brown, the Senate Majority Leader, said schools can make the smaller class sizes work.

“While we admire and appreciate these parents advocating for their local schools, the law requires school systems to reduce their student to teacher ratios, not to build more classrooms,” Brown said. “Many school districts have the class space to achieve lower student to teacher ratios through class size reductions, but all districts can achieve lower student to teacher ratios through team teaching, combination classes or other innovative and effective approaches.”

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