Unfunded class-size mandate bodes catastrophe for students, teachers

photo by Elyse Dashew

 

*this article originally appeared on WRAL.com

When the General Assembly convenes today, public school parents and teachers across North Carolina will anxiously wait to see whether legislators address the looming class size crisis.

Language in the 2016 state budget included a mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3.Despite the obvious costs associated with this move, the General Assembly provided no additional funding to cover the teaching positions or construction of classrooms required to meet the new smaller class sizes. After the House passed a bill (HB13) intended to give school districts more flexibility, the Senate revised it last spring. Unless our lawmakers choose to act, the original mandate set to kick-in in the new school year (fall 2018) brings with it many harmful repercussions for our teachers and students. The impact of the unfunded reduction of class sizes will be catastrophic.

School districts are on their own with a tough choice. Either come up with local funds to hire additional teachers or make cuts in other areas to free up money. Unfortunately, positions that are often on the chopping block during lean times are art, music, and physical education, even though these classes are so critical to helping our children develop healthy bodies and creative minds. Foreign language and computer classes may be eliminated as well, despite being such important parts helping students function effectively in the 21st century and providing a well-rounded educational experience.

In addition to cutting teaching positions, some schools may be forced to swell class sizes to 35-40 students at fourth and fifth grade to comply with the law. Increasing class sizes at those grade levels will reduce one-on-one teacher-student contact, make it difficult for teachers to communicate regularly with parents, and create potential classroom management nightmares (ever been in a small room with 40 ten-year-olds?).

Class sizes in middle and high schools — where they are already bursting at the seams — could be increased as well to make more teachers available to teach early elementary grades. This is not an ideal solution that benefits anyone.

Should the Senate choose not to take up class sizes during the January session, there are also serious implications for schools when it comes to the need to expand current schools or build new ones. The vast majority of school districts in North Carolina are required by statute to submit their budgets to county commissions by May 15. Backed into a corner by the looming mandate, districts will be forced to budget for the additional capital needs so they’ll be able to purchase and set up costly mobile classrooms before the next school year begins.

Should the Senate agree to pass some sort of fix to the class size conundrum later this spring, it’s quite possible that it could come after districts have already begun installing the additional classrooms current legislation demands. Such uncertainty is unfair and places unnecessary pressure on school boards and county commissions seeking to be responsible stewards of tax dollars.

Nobody is arguing for larger class sizes at grades K-3. My experience as a teacher has showed me that more individual attention for our students at any grade level makes a big difference in their lives. But it seems very unlikely that our current General Assembly can find the will to fully fund the class size mandate, both teaching positions and decent classrooms.

Emblazoned on the wall of the State Board of Education’s meeting chamber is a line from North Carolina’s constitution: “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” The people are watching the Senate today. We expect our leaders to do their part to provide our children with the public education they deserve and is promised by our State Constitution.

It’s time for them to repeal the class size mandate before it’s too late.

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