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Following outcry, legislators move to address statewide headache over school classroom sizes

N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

Months after Policy Watch reported a new K-3 class size funding formula could have devastating impacts on local school districts, North Carolina lawmakers have filed legislation to offer the flexibility demanded by public school advocates.

House Bill 13, co-sponsored by three state House Republicans, would grant local districts some limited flexibility when it comes to required class size limits imposed by last year’s state budget.

Local district officials told Policy Watch the new state-mandated class sizes would force schools to make painful choices without intervention or additional funding from the legislature. Districts would have to shed “specialty” courses such as arts and physical education, pack classes in grades 4-12 or ask for major funding increases from local governments across the state.

Under the current language, districts are not allowed to exceed the state’s prescribed average class size in grades K-3, purportedly an effort to heed education research that suggests overcrowded classrooms in the lower grades can be particularly harmful to a student’s learning.

But the legislation filed this week with the General Assembly reconvening for its long session opens the door for districts to surpass that average by up to three students.

Additionally, the proposed bill would double the amount individual classrooms are allowed to exceed the state’s class size requirements from three students to six students.

A lobbyist with the N.C. School Boards Associations (NCSBA), which represents local districts in Raleigh, applauded the legislation Thursday.

“NCSBA supports HB 13 because it returns the level of flexibility that school districts have historically had and recognizes the General Assembly’s desire to reduce class size,” said Leanne Winner, NCSBA director of governmental relations. “This proposal substantially alleviates the possibility of cuts to art, music, PE and foreign language; increases in class size in grades 4-12; or increased appropriations from county commissioners which may lead to a property tax increase.”

It remains to be seen whether Senate leadership will sign off on the class size fix.

Some public school advocates and local leaders suggested the budget language was an intended slight by Republican leadership, but Rep. Craig Horn, an influential GOP budget writer from Union County who is co-sponsoring H13, suggested to Policy Watch in November the changes were not fully considered when they were bundled by lawmakers in the 2016 budget.

“How things play out is not always how you expect them to play out,” Horn said then. “I mean, we obviously intended to make class changes. Did we fully understand all of the implications? Quite frankly, hell no.”

Horn added that lawmakers, while fully intending to shrink class sizes, were not hoping to negatively impact local school districts.

However, this week, Kris Nordstrom, a former General Assembly budget writer who now works as a fiscal analyst with the N.C. Justice Center, says he explained the full implications to Republican leadership when the reforms were first lobbed two years ago.

“These unfunded class size restrictions have been pushed by the Senate since the 2015 Budget,” said Nordstrom.  “If General Assembly members are claiming that it was a mistake, or that they didn’t understand the consequences, they’re either lying or incompetent.”

(Disclosure: The Justice Center is the parent nonprofit of N.C. Policy Watch.)

Regardless, advocates were hopeful last year that the legislature would find bipartisan support to amend the class size requirements when they reconvened this year. Policy Watch will continue to track this important legislation as it progresses.

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