Education

Deal could be announced in North Carolina K-3 class size issue

Despite the bitter cold, hundreds of parents, educators and students held signs, chanted, and listened to a variety of speakers at the Class Size Chaos Rally on Halifax Mall in Raleigh, N.C., on Jan. 6, 2017.
Despite the bitter cold, hundreds of parents, educators and students held signs, chanted, and listened to a variety of speakers at the Class Size Chaos Rally on Halifax Mall in Raleigh, N.C., on Jan. 6, 2017. jwall@newsobserver.com

Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore will hold a joint press conference this afternoon to give an update on K-3 class-size issues and pre-kindergarten programs.

The highly anticipated announcement by North Carolina’s two top Republican lawmakers comes as school districts have warned that they don’t have the thousands of additional classrooms or teachers needed to meet the state requirement to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade later this year. Additionally, speakers at this week’s Emerging Issues Forum called on state leaders to expand enrollment in North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten programs.

School officials have been clamoring for quick action on the K-3 class size issue because they’re planning budgets for the 2018-19 school year. Parents and educators said it would be too late if lawmakers wait until the short session in May to act on the issue.

Starting in July, elementary schools have a new requirement that drops average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to roughly 17 students per class. It was at 21 students last school year.

State lawmakers had initially required the changes to go into effect for the 2017-18 school year. But school officials complained that the changes reduced their flexibility to use state dollars to pay for art, music and physical education teachers.

Amid lobbying, state lawmakers agreed last year to a one-year delay while they studied issues such as whether the state should separately fund art, music and physical education teachers.

School districts around the state have continued to warn about a wide range of negative consequences such as potentially having to lay off art, music and PE teachers to help find the money to hire more K-3 teachers.

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. 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.

School leaders and parents have kept up the pressure over the past several months to urge state lawmakers to either delay the class size changes or come up with more money to fund the smaller class sizes. Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democratic elected officials had joined the campaign.

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

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

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