State Politics

NC lawmakers may give school calendar and class size flexibility

From left, River Bend Elementary kindergarten teacher Valerie Minervini leads her students in a morning counting song during their Sept. 15, 2016 school day. The General Assembly is considering legislation to ease the impact of new state-mandated class size reductions in kindergarten through third-grade classes.
From left, River Bend Elementary kindergarten teacher Valerie Minervini leads her students in a morning counting song during their Sept. 15, 2016 school day. The General Assembly is considering legislation to ease the impact of new state-mandated class size reductions in kindergarten through third-grade classes. News & Observer file photo

State lawmakers moved closer Thursday to passing legislation that would allow school districts to get around the school calendar law and to have more flexibility in how they set their class sizes.

The House Education Committee supported a bill that lets school districts, which are now required by state law to begin in late August, match the mid-August opening date used by community colleges. While the change is supposed to help high schools that work with community colleges coordinate their schedules, the bill would allow districts to change the start dates for all their schools.

“It’s up to your school board how to do that,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, chairwoman of the House Education Committee and a Cabarrus County Republican. “It just would be an option.”

But House Bill 12 was sent to the House Rules Committee on Thursday instead of to the full House for a vote. Rep. David Lewis, chairman of the Rules Committee and a Dunn Republican, said the calendar bill is dead this session, meaning North Carolina’s school calendar law is still safe.

The General Assembly passed the calendar law in 2004 at the urging of the tourism industry and some parents who were concerned how school districts were shortening summer break. Some districts were starting traditional-calendar classes in the first week of August.

The calendar law says schools can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. Charter schools and year-round schools are exempt from the law.

School systems have been trying to get exemptions to the calendar law, but tourism officials have fought their efforts.

Under House Bill 12, school boards could set the opening date for schools to coincide with the opening date of a community college serving their city or county. Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said it makes sense for high schools that work closely with community colleges to start at the same time.

But under questioning from Rep. Frank Eiler, a Brunswick County Republican, Horn and Johnson said school boards could elect to have all their schools match the earlier August start dates.

“This is a change in the school calendar law that could affect 100 percent of the schools,” said Eiler, who objected to expanding the law beyond schools that work with community colleges.

The bill drew sharp opposition from the committee during a voice vote, with Johnson saying the ayes won.

Also on Thursday, the House Education Committee supported House Bill 13, which eases upcoming changes in school class sizes that were made in this year’s state budget. The bill wouldn’t raise current class size limits but would allow districts to not reduce them as much as previously mandated by the legislature.

For the 2017-18 school year, lawmakers had lowered the maximum average K-3 class size for school districts from 21 students to 18 in kindergarten, 16 in first grade and 17 in second and third grades.

Also for the 2017-18 school year, lawmakers had lowered the maximum individual K-3 class size from 24 students to 21 in kindergarten, 19 in first grade and 20 in second and third grades.

But the changes have led to complaints from school districts that say it will cause staffing challenges and make it hard for them to find enough seats to hold students. Rep. Jeff Elmore, a sponsor of the bill, acknowledged those concerns and said school boards would welcome the new legislation.

Under House Bill 13, the maximum average class size next school year would be 21 students in kindergarten, 19 in first grade and 20 in second and third grades. The bill also sets the maximum individual class size next school year at 24 students in kindergarten, 22 in first grade and 23 in second and third grades.

“This still keeps to the idea that we are lowering class sizes, but it creates a range to where they (school districts) have some flexibility in how to accomplish that goal,” said Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican.

The bill was moved to Friday’s House calendar for a vote.

Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed

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

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