The class size reduction compromise passed by the General Assembly this week is a mixed bag for local school districts. Among the positive outcomes are a multi-year approach to reducing class sizes, adding funding for program enhancement teachers, and eliminating the waiting list for pre-kindergarten classes.
On the other hand, local school districts like Wake County Public Schools still must find ways to accommodate the hundreds of new classrooms that will be needed by the time the class size limits will take effect in 2021. This is going to require a great deal of community patience, flexibility, and support to overcome the impact of this legislation.
Although WakeEd has advocated for greater flexibility on setting class size limits, we are grateful that the General Assembly reached the compromise early enough in 2018 so local school districts like WCPSS could keep the fiscal 2018-19 budget development process on track.
By adding a separate allotment stream for elementary program enhancement teachers – arts, music, world language, and physical education – the General Assembly is committed to keeping these programs in the elementary schools.
Finally, the plan to eliminate the waiting list for pre-kindergarten students over the next two years is a huge win for early childhood efforts throughout the state, and will reap great rewards for the state’s efforts to have every child reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
These improvements mean local education leaders can breathe a sigh of relief for now. They have more time to address their needs for reducing class sizes over the four school years, and they have a guarantee that significant funding will be committed to the program enhancements teachers.
What’s left unanswered, however, is the issue of where to put all the new classrooms that will be needed to comply with the class size limits. The WCPSS school board will have to make several unpopular choices including putting more than 30 students in fourth and fifth grade, converting non-instructional spaces such as closets and offices into small-group classroom spaces, and adjusting student assignment plans.
The school board has already voted to “cap” enrollment at a dozen elementary schools for this school year, and 15 schools next year. Families can expect that number to grow in future years. Other choices may include reassigning transfer, magnet, and calendar-choice students back to their base schools, capping enrollment at more schools, and making specific changes to assignment zones.
This is not a problem WCPSS can build its way out of, either. By the time the class sizes are reduced to their lowest levels of 18 in kindergarten, 16 in first grade, and 17 each in second and third grades, WCPSS will need an additional 587 classrooms. That’s the equivalent of about 15 elementary schools. Finding available land is proving more and more difficult, and land costs and construction costs are rising.
Modular classrooms (trailers) are a quick solution, but not exactly cheap or feasible, and not every school property can safely host a modular cluster.
It’s important to remember that WCPSS will do its best to comply with the law while reducing the impact to students and families as much as it can. To be successful, the school system is going to need full community support from all elected and appointed officials, business leaders, and the community at large.
On the horizon are two school construction bond referenda. A local bond for just Wake County Public Schools will fund the next several years of the school system’s seven-year capital plan, and a statewide K-12 bond will send another $170 million to Wake. Supporting these two bond requests will give the county the flexibility to build schools more cost effectively.
The work on reducing class sizes isn’t done, and now it is up to the community to make this law work for the educators, students, and families in Wake County.
Tim Lavallee is the Vice President of Policy and Research at WakeEd Partnership, an independent non-profit organization which serves as the business champion for public education in Wake County. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at www.wakeed.org.