State Politics

Parents, students and teachers urge NC lawmakers to save school arts and PE

Parents, teachers and students demanded Wednesday that state lawmakers pass legislation that they say will prevent thousands of potential teacher layoffs and cuts in art, music and physical education classes in North Carolina elementary schools.

Leaders of school districts across the state say arts and PE programs are at risk because they lost their flexibility to fund them when state legislators lowered maximum class sizes for kindergarten through third grade from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students.

Several hundred people who rallied on the Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh said the Senate needs to quickly approve House Bill 13, which school officials say would allow them to save arts and PE classes.

“My smart son struggles in school, but if HB 13 doesn’t pass, my greatest fear is that my smart son will fail at school,” said Susan Book, whose son is on the autism spectrum and attends Reedy Creek Elementary School in Cary. “He needs specials and specialist teachers.”

Signs that read “No More Stalling! Give HB13 the passing grade!” and “Pass HB13!! Don’t Make us Zombies” were waved behind the Legislative Building.

Senate Republican leaders don’t appear to be swayed by the lobbying for HB 13.

A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger accused school districts Wednesday of diverting the state money meant to reduce class sizes. She also said the Wake County school system hasn’t responded to a survey asking how it’s used the state money.

Wake school officials responded that they had answered the state’s questions. Berger’s spokeswoman said the response was incomplete.

Fears escalated this week when Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill said options to deal with the change include increasing class sizes for older students, cutting art and music classes, laying off teachers and reassigning students. He said Wake might also have to put as many as 40 students in K-3 classrooms with two teachers to try to comply with the new state requirements.

“I never thought I’d be pushed out of my career,” Dawn McCormick-Dahm, an art teacher at Highcroft Drive Elementary School in Cary, said at the rally. “Although our state has a budget surplus and my students love to learn in my classroom, I am told that my position may no longer be funded.

“I have cried. I have made phone calls, written emails and stood outside senators’ doors.”

Some Republican senators agree that action is needed to help school districts.

Freshman Sen. Rick Horner filed Senate Bill 541 that would keep maximum K-3 class sizes at 24 students and require extra pay for teachers whose classrooms exceed the size limit. Horner says his legislation is better than HB 13, but both bills are stuck in the Senate Rules Committee.

“When everybody calms down we’ll get this figured out,” said Horner, a Nash County Republican and former school board member for Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools.

Lawmakers lowered maximum K-3 class sizes as part of last year’s state budget, with the changes going into effect in the 2017-18 school year. School officials say the change removes their flexibility to pay specialists such as art, music, foreign language and physical education teachers out of the state dollars provided for regular classroom teachers.

The liberal N.C. Justice Center says hiring the 3,000 to 5,400 new teachers needed to meet the new class-size requirements will cost school districts as much as $388 million more per year in operating costs as well as significant capital costs.

School districts are considering funding the new teachers by eliminating arts programs. They may lay off many specialized teachers who don’t have the needed state certification to teach regular K-3 classes.

Many school districts have supported HB 13, which would reduce K-3 class sizes to as few as 22 students. Merrill said Wake would need $1.8 million more to hire 32 additional teachers if HB 13 passes, compared with $26 million more and 460 extra teachers if the new rules go into effect.

The bill was unanimously approved by the House in February, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate.

Stone Hensley, a fifth-grade student at Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, said he disagreed with lawmakers who think classes such as math and language arts are more important than the arts and physical education.

“If this bill doesn’t pass, they will be forced to devote all their resources to the core classes and I don’t think that’s right,” Stone said. “Our special programs inspire so many kids and teach them important life skills that help set them on the path of their life.”

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