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State lawmakers move one step closer to assuaging class-size crisis in N.C. schools

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson

North Carolina lawmakers say they are moving speedily to resolve a class-size crisis that could soon spur large-scale financial impacts in school districts across the state.

As Policy Watch reported in November, last year’s state-mandated reforms to funded class sizes could have drastic impacts in every local public school district, forcing officials to sack physical education and arts classes or spend millions more on teaching staff and infrastructure.

The legislature’s fix, House Bill 13, gained unanimous approval from the House K-12 Education Committee Tuesday and is now bound for a House budget committee.

One of its sponsors, Henderson County Republican Chuck McGrady, says he wants to have the bill heard on the House floor in the coming days, pointing out it’s imperative to do so before local school districts are too deep into planning a budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

“It’s just an effort to give our (local education agencies) more flexibility,” said McGrady. “I think that’s our aim here.”

On Tuesday, House Republicans such as McGrady characterized the legislation as a bipartisan-backed resolution to problems caused by last year’s “well-meaning” directive to local districts that they reduce class sizes in the lower grades.

However, former General Assembly fiscal analyst Kris Nordstrom, now an analyst for the N.C. Justice Center, told Policy Watch last month that he informed legislative leaders of the major consequences for local school boards long before they bundled the class-size changes in last year’s budget.

“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 N.C. Justice Center is the parent nonprofit of N.C. Policy Watch.)

To explain, the legislative mandate to shrink K-3 classes next school year would remove local district flexibility to exceed the state’s prescribed average class size in the lower grades. Without additional state funding, district officials said they would have to ask for major local funding increases or reallocate resources by shelving so-called “specialty” courses like the arts.

The burgeoning problem provoked a large outcry from local school leaders and public education advocates in Raleigh, some of whom suggested school choice supporters among Republican state leaders were intentionally acting to harm traditional public schools.

McGrady’s bill, he said, would simply restore local district flexibility that allows K-3 classes to exceed the funded average class size by no more than three students. Individual classes would not be allowed to surpass the funded class size by more than six students.

House Bill 13 would not generate any additional state dollars for North Carolina public schools to reduce class sizes. Asked about boosting classroom funding, McGrady indicated Tuesday’s House education committee hearing was not the proper venue.

Bill supporters said the legislative fix has the support of major public school advocates such as the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association, as well as members of the State Board of Education.

It remains unclear whether it will gain traction in the state Senate, which has been considerably more critical of N.C. public schools in recent years.

Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford

Reducing class sizes has been a priority for state Republicans in recent years, pointing to mounting research that smaller classes in the lower-grades can have a particularly positive outcome.

Yet, without a revamp of funding allocations in North Carolina, critics say the GOP-led reforms were creating more problems than they solved.

Several committee members cautioned Tuesday that the draft bill is only a Band-Aid for class-size funding in North Carolina. Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Guilford County Democrat, said he hoped legislators would revisit the issue soon.

“I hope we can leave politics out of this committee,” said Brockman.

Tuesday’s committee hearing comes with lawmakers already prepping a task force to study reported “inequities” in North Carolina’s complicated school funding formula. The House education committee is expected to take up that task force in the coming days.

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