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Legislator sends inaccuracy-riddled email to Charlotte school parents

Yesterday, Rep. Scott Stone sent a email concerning education issues [1] to parents with students in Charlotte’s Polo Ridge Elementary School that includes several glaring inaccuracies. The email purports to separate “facts” from “fiction” – yet nearly every one of the statements in the email is demonstrably wrong.

Let’s debunk his points, one by one:

“In 2013, the NC General Assembly passed Read to Achieve, with the goal of smaller classroom sizes.”

Senator Phil Berger initially introduced 2012’s (not 2013) Read to Achieve plan as a standalone bill, which can be found here [2]. The bill was subsequently rolled into the 2012 budget bill, S.L. 2012-142 [3]. The Read to Achieve language can be found on pages 38 through 45 [4] (Section 7A.1). Astute readers will note that there is no mention of smaller classroom sizes being a goal of the program.

“At the time this legislation passed there was funding allocated to hire additional teachers to meet this requirement of smaller classrooms.”

In the 2013 budget, the General Assembly modified the classroom teacher allotment to actually provide fewer teachers, not more (see Item 8 on page F 3 [5]). The General Assembly did not begin providing additional teachers to lower class sizes until the 2014-15 school year. Based on the number of students in grades K-3, it requires nearly 6,600 additional teachers to bring class sizes down to the levels required in FY 2018-19. In the 2014 and 2016 budget bills, the General Assembly cumulatively increased teacher funding by approximately $120 million per year, the equivalent of about 1,850 teachers. In order to be able to meet the FY 2018-19 class size requirement, districts still need nearly 4,750 additional teachers, at a cost of about $300 million.

“At the time, flexibility was given to local school districts so that money could be used where they had the greatest immediate need, but the legislative intent was clear that North Carolina wanted to have smaller class sizes for K-3.”

The legislation gave districts the flexibility to deploy these additional teachers at any grade level. The General Assembly never stated that these few additional positions were to be used only in grades K-3. In fact, the 2015 budget contained language explicitly stating [6] that – despite the additional funding – that “class size requirements in kindergarten through third grade shall remain unchanged” for the 2015-17 biennium. It was not until the 2016 budget that the General Assembly explicitly stated that class sizes in grades K-3 would need to be reduced effective the 2017-18 school year.

“As a result, some school districts used state money dedicated to lower classroom sizes to fund other initiatives. It is very difficult to track dollars once is leaves the state level as to how each dollar is spent in individual schools.”

It is not difficult to track dollars spent by school districts. The Department of Public Instruction publishes the data [7] on their publicly available website. In FY 2016-17, just four districts transferred $1.1 million out of their classroom teacher allotment, in full accordance with the flexibility that Rep. Stone and his General Assembly allies have granted to school districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools did not transfer out any of their classroom teacher funds [8]. Statewide, 99.972 percent of classroom teacher money was spent on teachers last year.

“The deadline that is approaching is not new…school districts have know [sic] since 2013 that this was a requirement, yet some have not done anything to address it.”

School districts first became aware of the deadline in 2015. At that time, district leaders warned General Assembly leadership that the requirement was unfunded. The General Assembly has done next to nothing to address the problem, only delaying the unfunded mandate until the rapidly approaching 2018-19 school year.

“While funding for teachers was appropriated, what was not appropriated was funding for additional facilities.”

The state still needs to fund an additional 4,750 teachers to allow districts to meet the FY 2018-19 class-size mandate. Districts would also need significant capital investment to meet the unfunded class-size mandate. CMS leaders estimate they will need to find $20 million [9] to meet next year’s requirements.

“The issue with art, music and other specials, has to do with physical space in schools”

No, the issue with art, music, and other enhancement teachers has to do with the 4,750 shortfall in teachers. As explained in the report Class Size Chaos [10], the unfunded mandate leaves districts with three options for meeting the mandate, none of them good:

  1. Eliminate enhancement classes and redeploy those positions to teach core early grade classes. Many physical education, art, and music teachers would need to be fired, and replaced with teachers licensed to teach core classes. The elimination of enhancement courses will have the secondary impact of eliminating planning periods for all elementary teachers.
  2. Redeploy teachers in grades 4-12 to early grades. Class sizes have already risen in grades 4-12. Allotment ratios in these grades have risen by at least two students at each grade span compared to pre-recession allotment ratios. Additionally, it’s unclear how many teachers in grades 4-12 would be effective transitioning to teaching much younger students.
  3. Raise local revenue to hire the required number of additional teacher. Of course, local revenue capacity is highly variable. Poor counties already tax their residents at higher rates than wealthier counties. Students who reside in relatively wealthy counties may continue to receive access to enhancement classes, while students in poorer districts would likely have to go without.

“(HB 13 [11]) is not what is driving the class size issue. It dates back to 2013 legislations [sic].”

As explained above, nothing in 2013 mandated lower grade K-3 class sizes. The original HB 13 language that passed the House unanimously was a potential fix to the unfunded class-size mandate. Unfortunately, the law that ultimately passed was modified to only push the unfunded mandate from the 2017-18 school year to the 2018-19 school year. A return to the original HB 13 language would provide a cost-free solution to this issue.

“The Senate’s perspective – which is based in fact from what we have seen in some parts of the state – is that school districts have been given money for more teachers, but have not spent it on what was intended, and we need to start getting to those smaller class sizes.”

As explained above, there is no factual basis for this perspective. Districts have been spending their classroom teacher funds on classroom teachers, in full accordance with the law. The General Assembly has failed to provide the necessary operating or capital funds necessary to implement the 2018-19 class-size requirements.

“The talking points on this issue from those trying to politicize the issue will say that the legislature’s requirements will force schools to cut music and art, among other programs, because ‘that is the only solution.’ This is flat out false. Those pushing an agenda are not telling you the truth.”

As documented above, the General Assembly has failed to fund next year’s class-size mandate. This is not false, nor is it a political view. It is math. And it’s math confirmed by budget experts and school finance officers from across the state.

Stone’s email is a sadly and frustratingly inaccurate document. Rather than fighting to repeal the unfunded class-size mandate or crafting a fully-funded long-term plan, he has attempted, quite unsuccessfully, to justify it. This bespeaks a troubling failure to grasp how school budgets work — a problem shared by many of his colleagues that is greatly harming North Carolina’s once-admired public school system [12].

Let’s hope tomorrow’s Rally to End Class Size Chaos [13] (at which education advocates from around the state will gather at 1:00 pm on the Halifax Mall behind the state Legislative Building) helps convince Rep. Stone and his colleagues to rethink their positions on this vital matter.