In 2016, the NCGA passed a law severely reducing class sizes in grades K-3. When it became clear that the law did not allow for funding for specialist teachers, parent outcry produced a one-year delay in parts of the law, but it will go into full effect for the 2018-2019 school year.
The class size law has two separate, but equally serious, effects on public education. First, the law changes how funding for teachers may be used, which will impact the kinds of teachers available in our schools. Second, the law effectively reduces school capacity by about 25%, without reference to whether schools have the space to accommodate that reduction in capacity. Each problem creates severe, and separate consequences.
First, the class size law eliminates funding for specialists. In North Carolina, there is one allocation “bucket” for teachers, out of which schools pay both classroom teachers and “specialists” (certified instructors of art, music, P.E. and other subjects outside of the core subjects of English, math, science and social studies). Teachers are funded at a set ratio of teachers to students. Until the 2016 law, class size ratios exceeded teacher funding ratios, and the difference between those two ratios provided funding for specialists. So, for example, in First Grade, teachers are funded at the rate of 1 teacher per 16 students. When class sizes were set at 20-24 children, the remaining money was spent on specialists and other resource teachers. There is no other funding source for specialists.
The class size law eliminated the gap between the teacher allocation and class size – so if the NCGA funds First Grade at 1:16, it now expects that class size will be 16 students. This eliminates ALL possibility of funding specialists in grades K-3, because by law, all funding allocated for those grades MUST be used on classroom teachers. So even when members of the NCGA tout their increased funding allocations – that they now provide a teacher for every 16 students, where once it was 1 for every 18 – they are eluding the fact that this money is limited to one specific use, where it had previously been expected (and allowed) to fund more than one type of teacher. The money to pay for those specialists must be found elsewhere in the budget, for example, by increasing class sizes in grades 4-5, or by reducing services.
It is estimated that it will require an additional $290 million to fully restore funding for specialists. However, the NCGA failed to provide such funding when it passed its budget for the 2018-2019 school year, and it will not return in a regular budget session until May 2018, months after school systems around the state will have to complete their budgets based on funding currently allocated by the NCGA.
Even if the NCGA were to restore funding for specialists, there is still an issue of physical space. When class sizes shrink, the need for classroom space (and teachers) grows. A class of 120 First Graders, for example, would require 5 classrooms under the old class size law, 6 classrooms now, and 8 classroom starting in 2018-2019. Throughout the state, school districts are trying to find those extra classrooms by increasing class sizes in grades 4 & 5, converting rooms used for art, music, special education and AIG classes to traditional classroom space, and by combining two or more classes into one classroom space. Schools may also have to force students out of their current schools into other, further away, schools to comply. But these efforts cannot fully address the problem – Wake County, for example, has more than 20 schools that cannot physically comply with the new class size law. The NGCA has provided no indication that it plans to help solve this issue.
Due to the efforts of parent activists, most members of the legislature now admit that the class-size law causes more problems than it solves. However, despite this recognition, the Senate refuses to move to fix the problem. This past October 2017, the house introduced a bill that would have restored flexibility in class sizes. However, the Senate removed that fix from their version of the bill and refused even to consider it. And now, legislators are saying that they will not consider solving the problem they caused when they return for a special session on January 10th, 2018.
This means that although the legislature recognizes that there is a problem they are affirmatively choosing not to fix it. Even more troubling, no legislator has pointed to any research that indicates that the specific class sizes they have mandated actually benefit students. So they are forcing our children to sacrifice critical aspects of their education to accommodate a class size mandate that may not actually even help them.
Call your NC Senator and Representative and ask that they designate the funding now so planning can be effective well before the 2018 school year starts.