Smaller class sizes in our public schools aren’t just a nice idea. They’re a proven educational strategy allowing greater attention for all of our students, especially those who need more help to succeed. In its zeal for offering unfunded mandates, however, the North Carolina General Assembly has given our schools a prescription for smaller class sizes that causes more problems than it solves.
By changing the way teaching positions in elementary schools are funded, state legislators – particularly in the Senate – have put at risk the enhancement programs that make schools come alive for students. Art, physical education, music, technology, and other “enhancement” programs or “specials” are vital to educating the whole child. In addition to being valuable subjects in themselves, they keep our students engaged at school and therefore more likely to thrive in their core subjects such as math and reading.
State Law 2017-9, also known as HB 13, requires our class size averages in kindergarten through third grade to match state funding ratios exactly, and is very restrictive about what happens if new students arrive in a classroom during the school year. If smaller class sizes mean breaking up classrooms when a single additional student arrives, that we have fewer seats available in our magnet schools, and that enhancement teachers would be displaced from their classrooms – assuming we continue to have funding for their positions – then the General Assembly needs to find a better way.
School boards and county commissions across North Carolina are planning next year’s budgets now. If the General Assembly does not fix HB 13 quickly:
▪ Our statewide teaching shortage will become even worse. Durham Public Schools will have to hire 90 additional teachers at a potential cost of $6 million, and build or create 63 new classrooms – by August.
▪ More library spaces, gymnasiums, art and music studios, computer labs and even hallways will turn into regular classrooms – something that is already happening in schools such as Forest View Elementary.
▪ Art and music programs will have to transition to “art on a cart” – depriving our students of dedicated space to paint, sculpt, and make music without making a mess in a regular classroom or distracting neighboring students.
▪ Our joint county and school board commitment to expanding access to pre-kindergarten education will be immediately undermined, as potential pre-K classrooms will be commandeered for additional K-3 classes.
DPS and Durham County support smaller class sizes. We also support arts, physical education and other enhancements, and we think all of our students deserve to be taught in actual, permanent classrooms. Our schools shouldn’t have to choose between reasonable class sizes and educational enhancements.
We urge the Senate and House to fix HB 13 and end what social media has begun referring to as #ClassSizeChaos. We ask that the General Assembly fully fund and slow implementation of class size reductions so that local governments and school boards may address these challenges in a thoughtful way. We ask that our enhancement teachers be fully funded. We ask that the legislature approve HB 866: Public School Building Bond Act of 2017 to help us build the schools and classrooms necessary to provide smaller class sizes.
Our boards are united on behalf of our students, families and educators. Senators and representatives, please join us.
Mike Lee is chair of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. Wendy Jacobs is chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.