Ill-advised limits

This editorial appeared in the Star-News, Wilmington

For years we've heard North Carolina conservatives complain about unfunded mandates coming down from Washington: Do it and figure out how to pay for it. U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, has even sponsored a bill in Congress called the Unfunded Mandates Information and Transparency Act to hold the feds accountable for the costs they impose on state and local governments.

But the Honorables in Raleigh aren't above enacting their own unfunded mandates, and a requirement that local school systems reduce the size of K-3 elementary school classes is a doozy.

New Hanover County predicts the policy will cost $3.2 million, and Pender expects $2.9 million in additional costs. Brunswick County is bracing for a similar impact. (The mandate would cost Durham Public Schools $ million and officials expect they would have to lay off 100 art, music and PE teachers.)

The provision in the budget enacted by the GOP-dominated General Assembly demands that schools reduce class sizes to strict ratios set by the state. Small classes sounds great -- more attention for each student. But the sacrifices this one-size-fits-all requirement imposes on local systems will hurt students. Before, there was some flexibility built into the requirements. Systems used it to hire arts and physical education teachers and support staff.

Pender County's school board passed a resolution in February seeking "urgent" legislative action on the issue. A measure that would have eased some of the class-size restrictions got unanimous support in the state House, a rarity in today's polarized political climate. But now it languishes in the Senate rules committee, chaired by Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick. The rules committee is where bills are often sent to die, and indeed Rabon told the StarNews that there was "nothing to report" on the measure last week.

Sorry, Pender County -- urgency isn't on the agenda in the N.C. Senate. So the Pender County Schools, which for the last couple of years were wrestling with finding enough money for two new schools, now will have to find space for 25 new classrooms by fall.

New Hanover Schools are looking at having some elementary schools share assistant principals and teachers of academically or intellectually gifted classes. Literacy coaches could be converted to K-3 teachers, and high school graduation coaches could be converted to teacher assistants or eliminated altogether. Art and music teachers may be pushing carts between classrooms.

The need for more classrooms may mean computer labs and libraries will double as classrooms.Brunswick County school officials face similar choices. This is just the latest example of Republican overreach as the party exercises the power that comes with having veto-proof super-majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. This time, students across the state will pay the price.