Class size ‘fix’ fails to address major implementation challenges

Thursday’s news of another year-long respite on mandatory class size reductions offered a welcome sigh of relief to school districts that were preparing for the worst.  The new fix allows school leaders to avoid the equally unpalatable choices of cutting arts, PE, and foreign language classes, swelling numbers at 4th grade and above to 40+ students, and holding classes in hallways in order to comply with the unfunded mandate.  However, without additional action by the General Assembly, we still face major challenges that will make it difficult for districts to lower class sizes as required by law.

Rather than requiring districts to meet sharp reductions in class sizes next school year without providing any funding, House Bill 90  preserves the status quo for next year, then phases in reductions gradually over the three school years that follow.  It creates a new allotment for ‘enhancement teachers’ which will grow to $246 million by 2021-22.  

There are valid misgivings about the legislation including unrelated changes to the state election board and diverting money from a pipeline project.  However, slimy political tricks aside, the larger concern is how school districts will be able to meet the mandate in the long term without additional support from legislators.  

As it happens, there is one pipeline with relevance to class size reductions:  the teacher pipeline.  After a 30% decline from 2010 to 2015, the last couple years have seen a slight uptick in the number of people enrolling in UNC teacher preparation programs.  But with thousands more elementary teachers needed to meet the smaller student/teacher ratios, we are likely to face a severe teacher shortage when class size reductions are completely phased in.  Our General Assembly needs to take an honest look at what precipitated the drop in teacher preparation enrollment and work to make North Carolina a more attractive place to be a teacher.  Continuing to improve teacher compensation, reinstating retiree health benefits, and providing a pay increase for teachers earning graduate degrees would be a good start.

The other big piece of the puzzle left unaddressed by House Bill 90 is the capital needs requirement of smaller classes at grades K-3.  In Mecklenburg County, the change will require more than 200 additional classrooms – the equivalent of about five elementary schools. At $100,000 per unit, CMS alone will need over $20 million to purchase and install those mobile classrooms. With many other districts statewide in the same position, we’re looking at well over $100 million in total capital costs.  Districts are typically responsible for their own capital needs.  A significant reduction in class sizes is not a typical situation.  Our legislators need to provide additional funds for decent classrooms so that our students aren’t forced to learn in closets and hallways.

The new short term class size fix comes while districts still have ample time to plan and budget for the year ahead.  Our legislators deserve credit for listening to the committed parents and educators who raised their concerns and asked for a solution sooner rather than later.  But make no mistake:  this temporary fix is not a solution; it merely postpones a crisis.  If the General Assembly really wants to lower class sizes without causing more ‘unintended consequences,’ it needs to begin planning now to address the coming teacher shortage and capital needs implications of such a move.  

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