North Carolina schools get reprieve on K-3 class-size rules

A legislative deal announced Thursday means North Carolina elementary schools won’t have to reduce class sizes this year that school officials said could potentially threaten art, music and physical education programs.

State Republican legislative leaders said they will phase in the smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade over the next four years instead of lowering them at once this fall. As part of the delay, lawmakers will include $61 million a year to help school districts pay for art, music and physical education teachers.

The deal comes after school officials around the state said they didn’t have the thousands of extra classrooms needed and might have to fire arts and PE teachers to help come up with the money to hire additional K-3 teachers.

“What we have here is a good solution to a problem that I don’t think anybody really anticipated but needed to be solved,” Senate Leader Phil Berger said at a press conference announcing the deal.

The House could vote on the legislation by Tuesday. The class-size change is included in a bill with a potentially controversial proposal that would take $58 million tied to a key permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and distribute it to school districts in eight counties. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper now controls the money, which Republicans called a “slush fund.”

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Also in the bill is the Republicans’ proposal to change the state elections board, written in response to the state Supreme Court striking down their previous attempt.

School districts 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 were faced with a new requirement that would drop average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to roughly 17 students. The average was 21 students last school year. Class sizes will not change for the 2018-19 school year under the deal.

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 those teachers.

Republican legislative leaders said it had taken time to develop a deal because they needed to review the data provided by school districts on how many “enhancement teachers” – arts and PE instructors – they now have. The state had separately funded those teachers until the 1990s.

“We’re just very pleased here,” said House Speaker Tim Moore. “This has been months and months of work.”

School districts around the state have continued to warn about a wide range of negative consequences of smaller class sizes without additional funding.

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.

That doesn’t include a long list of other actions such as increasing class sizes in grades four through 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.

In a statement, Wake schools said they were “pleased the legislature is addressing the K-3 class size issue and look forward to studying the details of the proposal.”

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. Cooper and other Democratic elected officials had joined the campaign.

“It’s clear that the legislature finally bowed to public pressure on class size and expanding Pre-K, which is positive for our students, but it’s unfortunate that it has been lumped in with political shenanigans,” Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement Thursday evening.

Renee Sekel, a Cary resident who organized “class-size chaos” protests in Raleigh, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the development, but wanted to read the bill.

A fix to the class size mandate was “critically important,” Sekel said. “I’m grateful they are dealing with this. I’m trying to hold back my impulse to say, ‘What took you so long.’ But at the end of the day, I want it fixed. And if it’s fixed, I’m not going to be throwing stones.”

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, thanked educators and parents who kept attention on the issue.

“The original class size bill was flawed from the start with an enormous unfunded mandate,” he said in a statement. “The delay in this proposal was unnecessary and the threat of educators losing their jobs was very real and disruptive to our schools. The phased-in plan has always been the more reasonable approach for local school districts, but whether the resources are adequate is still a question mark.”

Republican legislators repeatedly said Thursday that they are still committed to lowering class sizes as a way to improve student learning.

“We’re committed to lower class sizes logically, reasonably and in good time,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican.

When lawmakers announced the class-size deal Thursday, they also addressed a plan for pre-K services.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican, said the goal is to eliminate the state’s pre-K waiting list by 2021-22. The news comes after speakers at this week’s Emerging Issues Forum called on state leaders to expand enrollment in North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten programs.

“We developed this plan that we believe will have a real impact and a positive impact on the lives of our students,” Barefoot said.

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