Public school districts across the state have been sounding urgent alarms about the impending impact of a state mandate shrinking the maximum class sizes allowed in the early elementary grades.
A report this week from the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project quantified the statewide impact of the change. Under the change in the law enacted by the General Assembly in last year’s short legislative session, districts will need to find between 3,000 and 5,400 teachers to put into K-3 classrooms -- and in many cases will have to find space for additional classrooms . Many students, the center argued in its “Class-Size Chaos” report, could end up housed in temporary trailers.
The cost, the left-leaning center calculated, could be as high as $388 million a year in operating costs, plus potential capital costs to create needed new classrooms. That is a big hit by what the center and other critics of the legislation have asserted is an unfunded state mandate.
Unless the legislature at least mitigates the impact of the class-size rule, districts will be scrambling to find local money or to shift teaching resources. The sharpest pain point that has galvanized parents and others to protest the potential outcome would come to “enhancement” classes. Local districts would have to shift state funds they have used to pay for art, music and physical education teachers to those kindergarten-third grade classes.
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In Durham Public Schools, officials have said they would have to lay off 100 art, music and P.E. teachers or find $6 million in local funds for additional teachers -- an all-but-inconceivable route with the schools already facing a significant budget shortfall next fiscal year.
The teacher-funding gap, in DPS and across the state, could be eased if the legislature revises last year’s mandate. House Bill 13, which has passed the state House, would cut the costs by roughly two thirds. It’s stalled in the state Senate, which may not take it up until late this month. Meanwhile school districts are scrambling to craft budgets for next year with contingency plans for smaller class sizes.
The irony is that few dispute that smaller class sizes would be helpful -- or that subjects like music and art are important. But some lawmakers are skeptical local districts have been using funds appropriately, and see the class-size mandate as tightening the reins. The N. C. Association of School Administrators has said in a letter to the Senate “that schools are mostly complying with the current law, and where they’re not, they’re likely doing so because they have no choice,” Alex Granados reported in EducationNC Wednesday.
The classroom chaos can be averted, or at least minimized, if the Senate will simply sign on to HB13.