Class size issue is an attack on public schools

New NC K-3 class size rules could hurt teaching and learning

Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher says the changes elementary schools will need to make will hurt teaching and learning.
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Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher says the changes elementary schools will need to make will hurt teaching and learning.

No one who works in a public school needs research to know that small class sizes are good for students. Small class sizes are good for student learning, but research just reinforces what public school employees already know – for children, the more time with and attention from quality instructors they have, the more successful their learning outcomes.

Due to this, public school advocates have clamored for smaller class sizes for years. But the North Carolina General Assembly’s K-2 class size legislation, passed last spring, is wrong and should be viewed as an outright attack on public schools.

This legislation is a piece of political trickery known as an “unfunded mandate.” It’s fairly simple math – to have smaller classes, you need more teachers and classrooms. Lowering class size without providing adequate funding effectively eliminates positions for arts, music and P.E. teachers in order to be in legal compliance. This is no accident; rather, it’s a strategic maneuver by the GOP supermajority to create chaos on the local level. Districts now must scramble to comply with state law.

For the average person not steeped in the cynicism and downright meanness our state legislators routinely show toward public schools, this makes little sense. Public schools are designed to benefit everyone. Why would someone intentionally create a budget crisis for school districts? Who would do such a thing?

These self-inflicted wounds only begin to make sense when understood as part of the larger N.C. Republican strategy. In order to usher in new funding streams (and profit) for charter-school service providers and private school vouchers, there must first be a believable illusion that traditional public schools are in chaos, thereby making them undesirable.

Put simply, funding for public schools is being choked out to encourage families to opt for so-called “schools of choice.”

This is not to say that traditional public schools are without problems. Much to our collective consternation, our public schools all too often accurately reflect back to us the problems of race, class and gender inequities routinely ignored by the rest of society. That does not, however, mean charter schools and private school vouchers are appropriate solutions.

Despite decades of experiments with charter schools and for-profit education having failed to move the needle on these social issues, our state politicians are bent on diverting public school funds to these for-profit schemes. On the other hand, public schools show steady improvement worthy of continued investment, but that investment is not being made. To the contrary, public school budget cuts have become a sordid annual ritual.

The amount that North Carolina spends per student consistently ranks near the bottom in the nation. Any elected official who has kept us 43rd in the nation for education spending and has the audacity to suggest public schools are a failed experiment in need of profit saviors should be called to the electoral carpet in November and sent home.

For all their imperfections, public schools are ours. They belong to us, the public. They are accountable and transparent to constituents, representing us through local elected leadership. Decentralizing our education system through tangled webs of charter and private providers will not make education more accountable. It only serves to obscure results and masks how tax dollars are spent.

Students deserve more than cynical for-profit schemes. They certainly deserve small class sizes but only if the schools are properly funded. Class-size caps in grades K-2 that threaten art, music and P.E. are not the answer. Small classes in lower grades while upper grade numbers explode is not a workable solution.

The North Carolina General Assembly created this class size chaos. Either the legislators fix it now or voters will fix it in 2018.

Todd Warren is a licensed K-12 Spanish teacher currently serving as President of the Guilford County Association of Educators.

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