The following op-ed first appeared in the Charlotte Observer.
Last year’s North Carolina state budget legislation included a mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. Despite the obvious staffing and construction costs associated with that change, the General Assembly provided no additional funding to school districts to help them meet the new requirement. After begrudgingly kicking the can down the road for one year, the N.C. Senate apparently has no plans to address the class size debacle quickly enough to avoid a statewide catastrophe.
This month a group of Wake County public school parents met with N.C. Sen. John Alexander to discuss their concerns about students being reassigned to different schools outside their neighborhoods or losing music, art and physical education classes because of the class size mandate. The following day the Republican senator told one of those parents that he had spoken with his colleagues and the issue would not be on the agenda for January’s session. Sen. Alexander reportedly said the earliest it would be taken up was May – if at all.
Much of the public debate over the class size conundrum has centered around teaching positions. Stakeholders are rightly concerned about potential reductions of courses that are so vital in helping our children develop healthy bodies and creative minds. Teachers whose jobs may be sacrificed in the name of “progress” wonder how they will support their families. Parents with children in 4th and 5th grade fear that schools will be forced to swell class sizes at those grade levels to more than 30 students in order to comply when the legislation takes effect for school year 2018-2019. However, relatively little focus is being given to the capital needs implications of the Senate’s inaction.
In Mecklenburg County, the new class sizes for next school year will require more than 200 additional classrooms – the equivalent of about five elementary schools. At $100,000 per unit, our district alone will have to come up with over $20 million to purchase and install those mobile classrooms. With many other districts statewide in the same position, we’re looking at well over $100 million in total capital costs.
The vast majority of school districts in North Carolina are required by statute to submit their budgets to their county commissions by May 15. Backed into a corner by the looming mandate, those districts will be forced to budget for the additional capital needs. If Sen. Alexander is right about the Senate’s plans, it’s quite plausible that our legislators could pass some sort of fix only after districts have already begun installing the additional classrooms current legislation demands. It would be bitterly ironic if the self-proclaimed party of fiscal responsibility wasted over a hundred million taxpayer dollars just because they didn’t elect to do the right thing in a timely manner.
Nobody is arguing against smaller class sizes. The benefits of more individual attention for the youngest students are clear. However, if we really want to improve our educational outcomes in this manner, it isn’t going to be free. Until they’re willing to commit the necessary funds, our legislators need to stop dragging their feet and give districts the flexibility they need on class sizes by repealing the mandate. And they need to do so before it’s too late.
Parmenter is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy.