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Report: With class size headaches looming, state Senate not likely to act

North Carolina school districts seeking legislative relief from looming class-size cuts may be bound for disappointment, according to a Friday report from Lindsay Wagner at the Public School Forum of N.C.

From the Forum:

House lawmakers say they are keenly interested in legislative action next month that would either delay implementation of a new law requiring districts to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 and/or provide additional funds to districts so that complying with the mandate doesn’t result in harm to other areas of instruction.

But the Senate may not share the House’s view.

“Myself included, there are members of the House that very much want to take this issue up,” said House education committee chair Representative Craig Horn (R-Union). “But in order to do this successfully, we need to have some agreement with the Senate to at least address the issue.”

In an email and in-person conversations with his constituents earlier this month, Senator John Alexander (R-Wake) said the class size issue would not come up for debate at all during the legislature’s January special session.

Responding to a constituent who met with him in person and then emailed him to explain how the law was impacting other districts’ ability to continue offering Pre-K, Sen. Alexander wrote, “As we will not be starting our short session until May 2018, nothing can be done legislatively until then.”

Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke), also a member of the House education committee, said he too is hearing Senators won’t discuss the issue any further next month—and he can’t figure out why they will not.

“I don’t have a read on why the Senate won’t even discuss it. I am unable to see into their psyche,” said Rep. Blackwell.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke

The news comes a little more than a year after Policy Watch detailed local school chiefs’ fears that a legislative mandate to chop class sizes in lower grades would yield devastating financial impact  without additional support from the state.

Districts warned thousands of teaching jobs may be in jeopardy as local officials sought to reallocate resources. State lawmakers offered a partial respite this year, although class size cuts baked into the second year of the plan would have similarly harsh impacts in 2018, according to K-12 advocates.

More from the Public School Forum:

The General Assembly granted a temporary reprieve earlier this year so that the full effect of the class size mandate would not be felt until 2018-19, and included a pledge in law that they would fund enhancement teachers beginning in 2018—a pledge that, so far, has not been fulfilled.

If current law stands and the General Assembly does not fund enhancement teachers or make other changes this January, local school districts will have to begin drawing up plans to comply with the mandate that include the following scenarios, they say: increase class sizes in grades 4-12; cut or displace arts, music, PE and special education classes; reassign students to different schools to alleviate crowding; and, in some cases, eliminate or displace Pre-Kindergarten.

In theory, said Rep. Blackwell, reduced class sizes can be a good thing—but it’s a much more complicated issue than simply reducing class size alone, and he says he doesn’t support the forced class size mandate in its current form.

“Years ago when I was on the school board, I was the leading advocate for the reduced class size program,” said Rep. Blackwell. “We reduced our grades 1-3 classrooms over four years to one teacher for every 15 students.”

“But,” cautioned Rep. Blackwell, “there’s a whole lot of professional development that teachers will need so that they can teach differently with fewer kids. And you have to phase it in so that districts can come up with classroom space—we didn’t try to go whole hog over one or two years. It’s a mistake not to lay the groundwork and not to allow for the fact that teaching in front of 18 students versus 24 doesn’t automatically make learning go up.”

Rep. Horn said he’s frustrated his Senate colleagues are not ready to talk about the negative impacts the class size mandate is having on schools and families.

“The Senate has been reluctant to take it up,” said Horn, who hopes they will reconsider. “We are anxious to resolve this and the LEAs [local education agencies] need to plan now and be prepared for what challenges they will face with the new school year.”

According to Rep. Horn, the General Assembly should consider the following to ease the burden that their class size mandate is having on districts: extend the period of implementation so there’s more time for planning and extend more resources so that districts can hire the teachers and build the space they need to satisfy the mandate.

“I have no confidence that we have sufficient teachers that would meet the demand for a smaller class size mandate,” said Horn. “And we don’t even have the classrooms to satisfy the mandate either. So to resolve this issue completely, we have to resolve these points.”

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