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Fix to school funding crunch advances through N.C. House

North Carolina House lawmakers unanimously backed draft legislation intended to allay an imminent K-3 class size dilemma for public schools Thursday, despite criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

House Bill 13 will offer local school districts flexibility over their average and maximum classroom sizes in the early grades, weeks before public school leaders say a GOP-led state budget provision could have forced districts to choose between axing arts and physical education classes or asking for major funding increases from local governments.

State officials say the the implications could be modest in smaller districts, but significant in some of North Carolina’s largest school districts.

Republicans say the bill will resolve the unintended consequences of a legislative mandate last year that schools trim class sizes in the lower grades. But Democrats and public school critics have chided GOP lawmakers for what they describe as an “unfunded mandate” that would have drastic impacts for local school districts.

“If we truly believe that class size can make a difference as I do, then just fund it,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat. “Put the money where our rhetoric is and just fund it.”

Starting with next school year, school districts are set to lose the ability to exceed the state’s funded average classroom sizes in grades K-3. Without easing that directive or providing additional financing, local school officials complained of broad impacts on staffing, infrastructure, teaching assistants and class sizes in grades 4-12.

House lawmakers unanimously approved the bill Thursday and it’s now bound for the state Senate, where its prospects for approval without modification are murky.

Senate leaders have been significantly more critical of public schools in recent years, and a spokeswoman for Senate President Phil Berger has not responded to multiple Policy Watch inquiries about the matter.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, the Henderson County Republican who co-sponsored House Bill 13, said Thursday that the controversial budget mandate in question arose at least in part because Senate leadership was “upset” that public schools were using classroom funding for other purposes.

Republicans suggested multiple times in committee and on the House floor in recent days that public school districts are misusing state funding, although they have not offered proof and school district lobbyists have indicated they know of no such circumstances.

McGrady said he hopes his bill, which has the support of local district lobbyists at the N.C. School Boards Association, will offer a “smoother path” for North Carolina schools. Local districts warned of “draconian” cuts without action from the legislature to mediate last year’s mandate, he said.

“They didn’t have a lot of warning,” said McGrady. “This is a bill to give a glide path here.”

Meanwhile, McGrady rebuffed calls from Democrats Thursday to debate overall school funding. Critics of GOP leaders have long maintained that the state legislature is not properly funding North Carolina public schools.

“I’m sure we’re going to have that debate when we debate the budget,” added McGrady. “This bill is not that bill. These positions for lower class sizes have already been paid for by us. This is about flexibility.”

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