Gov. Cooper signs class size fix legislation, blasts Republicans over school funding

Gov. Roy Cooper

Gov. Roy Cooper wasted no time in signing a compromise bill approved Thursday by the N.C. General Assembly that, at least for one year, staves off thousands of lost teaching positions in the early grades.

House Bill 13 was approved after a roughly two-month standoff over legislative Republicans’ demand that North Carolina schools cut class sizes in K-3.

Lawmakers are heeding research suggesting the positive effects of smaller classes in the early grades, but district leaders complained that, without additional state funding, many local school leaders would be forced to lay off arts and physical education teachers in the early grades to find the cash for more core subject elementary teachers.

“While this legislation addresses immediate concerns, the failure of legislative Republicans to properly fund our schools has risked the jobs of educators and jeopardized our children’s future,” Cooper said in a statement. “It’s imperative that we quit kicking the can down the road. Instead of continuing to offer tax giveaways to millionaires and giant corporations, I urge legislators to work with me to invest in our schools and make North Carolina a top-ten educated state.”

GOP leaders in the legislature accuse school districts of misusing their classroom funding allotment, which will force districts to phase in smaller classrooms over the next two years.

Republicans complained of elementary classes currently exceeding the maximum funded allotment, which under House Bill 13, will be one teacher per 23 students in K-3 in the 2017-2018 academic year. Next year, that ratio will drop to one teacher per 21 students.

Meanwhile, the average classroom size will be set at 20 students next year. In the following year, the average funded size varies by grade. In kindergarten, it will be limited to an average of 18 students. In first grade, it will be set at 16 students, while second and third grade classrooms would have an average of 17 students.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson

School district leaders said they agree with the intent of the class size mandate, if not the execution. Districts have long used the flexibility granted in the state’s current law to retain non-core teachers.

Republican lawmakers said they will use reporting requirements bundled into this week’s pact to assess the funding needs for districts’ specialty teachers, although legislators offered no assurances of additional funding next year, potentially setting up a similar high-stakes clash over teaching jobs.

State House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, who represents Wake County, called this week’s deal a “temporary reprieve from a no-win situation.”

“Without HB 13, our schools and kids will suffer,” said Jackson. “It would lead to firing arts, music, and other specialist teachers in exchange for hiring more early grade teachers.  No one wants that and it is good that HB 13 will become law.

“Yet House Democrats believe we do not need to choose between the kindergarten teacher and the art teacher – we need both.”

Democrats took the opportunity, meanwhile, to disparage a pending GOP plan for $1 billion in tax cuts over the next two years, a proposal they say will reduce the state’s ability to provide basic services such as funding for public schools.

Today, the state’s per-pupil funding is mired at 43rd in the nation, according to national rankings.

“We need to follow Governor Cooper’s proposed budget,” said Jackson. “No more tax cuts for the wealthy or tax increases on working families.  Increase teacher pay by 5% this year and next.  Fully fund lower class sizes and the specialist teachers down the hall.  Start making North Carolina a leader in public education again.”

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