North Carolina school districts worried about meeting smaller state-mandated K-3 class sizes could get relief from lawmakers.
Legislation filed last week would allow the State Board of Education to grant waivers to elementary schools that say they don’t have the classroom space or teachers needed to meet the smaller class sizes. House Bill 251 comes as K-3 class sizes are set to drop over the next two years, something that school leaders around the state say will be hard to meet.
“We’ve got to face reality,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “We don’t have a sufficient supply of high-quality teachers.
“We’re just now constructing a school bond. If the bond or some version of the bond passed, it’s going to be three years before we’re going to see some relief.”
The bill’s three other primary sponsors, all Republicans, are Reps. Pat Hurley of Randolph County, Jon Hardister of Guilford County and Hugh Blackwell of Burke County.
A spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger noted that funds in the Senate’s school construction plan would provide money as early as this year to help schools meet the class-size requirements.
Republican state lawmakers say the smaller K-3 class sizes will help improve academic performance. But after school districts complained about not being able to meet the requirements, the changes were delayed.
This school year, the average K-3 class size allowed under state law is 20 students. It will drop to 19 students in the fall and 18 students in 2020. It’s scheduled to drop to a maximum of 16 to 18 students in a class, depending on the grade level, for the 2021-22 school year.
The Wake County school system is putting enrollment caps on 18 elementary schools for this fall to help those schools reach the smaller class sizes. When a school is capped, newcomers to its attendance area are sent to a more distant school that has space.
Wake is also taking steps such as having two classes share the same room, combining students from different grade levels and converting art and music classrooms into regular classrooms. Class sizes are also going up in other grade levels so that more money is spent on hiring K-3 teachers.
A limited number of reasons are now allowed for a K-3 class size waiver. Reasons include emergencies, an unanticipated increase in school population and schools dealing with an influx of students because of the closure of a charter school.
Cecilia Holden, legislative director for the state board, said the state board requested the legislation after school districts raised hardship concerns about meeting the class sizes. The bill would provide two additional reasons for granting a class-size waiver:
▪ Inadequate classroom space or facilities that would require a facility expansion or relocation;
▪ A shortage of qualified, licensed teachers available to teach in the grade level for the number of classrooms required at the individual school.
“There are some situations where you find, especially In the growing urban areas, where they may not have the classroom space to meet the class sizes,” Holden said. “If that should be the scenario, we want them to have the opportunity to request a waiver.”
Holden said the state board doesn’t anticipate granting a large number of waivers.
In addition to the new class-size waivers, the state board is asking for several other education changes in the bill. Horn, who is a co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said the bill will need to be revised.
If the bill passes in the House, it’s unclear if the Senate will support any changes. The House has historically been more willing than the Senate to provide K-3 class size flexibility.
Horn said that while he still thinks smaller class sizes help academically, he said state law needs to be revisited. He said the way the state is reducing K-3 class sizes is hamstringing school districts and making it harder for them to implement new advanced teaching role programs that change the way educators are paid.
“The reality is we have some teachers who can handle larger class sizes than others,” Horn said.