Education

NC Democrats press GOP lawmakers to back off K-3 class size changes

Gov. Cooper stresses importance of funding class-size mandate

Governor Roy Cooper visited Penny Road Elementary School in Cary on Tuesday to see students and talk with educators about what an unfunded class-size mandate means for their school.
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Governor Roy Cooper visited Penny Road Elementary School in Cary on Tuesday to see students and talk with educators about what an unfunded class-size mandate means for their school.

Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democrats are urging Republican legislators to act this week to help school districts deal with smaller state-mandated K-3 class sizes, but a key lawmaker says a deal is not imminent.

School leaders across North Carolina are warning about a wide range of negative consequences for teachers and students if they’re still required to sharply reduce K-3 class sizes starting in July. During a visit Tuesday at Penny Road Elementary School in Cary, Cooper said GOP lawmakers need to provide funding for smaller classes or phase in the changes when they return to Raleigh on Wednesday for a special session.

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

Wake County school officials say it would cost $24.6 million to hire 431 classroom teachers at schools like Penny Road to get class sizes down. This doesn’t include 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.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat and parent of an elementary student, announced that he would file a bill Wednesday giving school districts flexibility from implementing the smaller class sizes.

“We need to solve the class size problem now, not next month, and not during the short session,” Chaudhuri said during a news conference Tuesday.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and House education committee co-chairman, said lawmakers have been meeting to develop a solution that will work for most people. Horn said he believes a plan will be ready well before April but not by this week.

“I think we’ll come up with a reasonable solution,” Horn said in an interview. “It might not make everyone happy.”

Starting in July, the average class size in kindergarten through third grade will drop from 20 students this school year to roughly 17 children per class.

Some school districts have also warned that they might have to lay off art, music and physical education teachers to pay for the new regular classroom teachers.

With school districts planning their budgets now for next school year, Cooper said action is needed immediately and not when the legislative short session starts in May.

“We need to take the pressure off school districts now so they can do their jobs,” Cooper said. “Let’s help them phase into new class size requirements over time so that students and teachers don’t suffer. Let’s make sure they get the funding to do this.”

In the meantime, parent groups and educators have continued their lobbying efforts, including an outdoor rally Saturday in Raleigh in subfreezing temperatures.

“What I keep saying is, ‘All we can do is ask,’ ” said Renee Sekel, a Wake County parent who organized Saturday’s rally. “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 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, said Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger.

“Senate Republicans will continue working with our schools to provide parents certainty about what will happen next school year – while making sure taxpayers are getting the smaller class sizes they’ve paid for,” she said.

Based on the meetings with senators, Horn said he thinks the Senate is willing to reconsider the strategy that’s being used to lower class size.

It’s possible a plan could be ready by the time another special session might be held in late January or early February, Horn said. But he added that a deal being reached by March is more likely.

“We’ll do it in time so that the LEAs (local education agencies) and superintendents have time to implement whatever it is, and we’re not going to shove it down their throats,” Horn said.

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

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