Commentary

Each win matters: Public education advocates reflect on a year of struggle to solve the class size crisis

[This is the fourth installment in a series of brief essays by some of the North Carolina advocates who helped lead the fight to repeal the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. You can read previous installments by clicking here, here and here.]

We Must Do Better By Our Kids: Luann Bryan

I am a Nationally Board Certified educator with 14 years’ experience. I am a native Durhamite teaching 4th grade at Hillandale Elementary in Durham. Our fourth grade team had all been preparing for the eventual influx of more students in the fall with the class size mandate. Now that we have a partial ‘fix’ we’re still concerned about overcrowding and the space needed to eventually prepare for the class size caps.

I’m also disappointed this ever became the issue it did. It caused so much anxiety for educators and there was no reason for it. Currently, I have room for three more desks without stepping over other students to get to them. I have no idea how they expected us to eventually fit more children in these classrooms. We’re supposed to be teaching technology in our 4th and 5th grade classes and having overcrowded classrooms is not an effective way to do that. If we believe that all students, regardless of needs or ability, should be mainstreamed into a single class and that it is the responsibility of the teacher to differentiate instruction, then we must understand the challenges overcrowding poses. With 25 students, differentiated instruction is hard, with 30, it’s nearly impossible, with 40+ students, it simply will not happen. If we want smaller class sizes, they must give the school districts the funding needed to make it happen.

Behavior management also requires individualized approaches, all of which is impossible with a crowded classroom. Being successful with implementing differentiated instruction requires you to be incredibly creative, developing and providing diverse materials and, a considerable amount of planning time must go into this. The time that our students are at their Specials is the time we use as a planning period. If we lose that time we lose that planning time and the level of instruction will suffer. We already use weekends and weekday evenings to lesson plan, grade, communicate with parents and prep for the day. Without that planning period, we would simply not have enough hours in the day to do our job effectively.

Another issue often overlooked in this conversation is that we use an integrated curriculum. This means that much of what the students are exposed to in art, music and PE is reinforced throughout the day and in their other subjects. This approach builds the whole child, which is so important. If a child is struggling in one area, they still have the opportunity to excel and grow confident in another. The ‘fix’ was needed but the mandate should never have been passed without the funding schools require.

I am incredibly disillusioned with the current state of support for public education. It truly feels like our lawmakers are trying to destroy it. Our kids need us, now more than ever but it feels as if we have our hands tied behind our backs. I would challenge any of our lawmakers to come into our classrooms. They should see for themselves what teachers are up against and the struggles our students are facing. They can and must take action to restore public education in North Carolina. Our kids deserve better than this.

Commentary

Each win matters: Public education advocates reflect on a year of struggle to solve the class size crisis

[This is the third installment in a series of brief essays by some of the North Carolina advocates who helped lead the fight to repeal the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. You can read previous installments by clicking here and here.]

Motivated to Act: Sarah Littlejohn McDade

I never cared one bit about politics. I was a registered Republican, born and raised in Raleigh who would sometimes vote across party lines depending on the issues, and lived my simple, middle class life with no real worries. Then on September 19 of last year, I found out that my son, a 7 year old second grader at Abbotts Creek Elementary, would be kicked out of his school for the 2018-2019 year due to something called the class size mandate.

I had heard of this mandate, heard we might lose music, PE, technology and art but always figured it would work out somehow. I mean, there was no way our legislators would allow such a thing to happen in our schools, right? Now it was affecting my family. Affecting my shy, reserved, not-easily-adaptable-to-change son. He was to be kicked out of a school located across the street from our home, a school not overcrowded nor capped. My son had just started 2nd grade, and had become a confident, happy student after two years of struggling to adapt to a new school.

Not knowing what to do next, I began to research the class size mandate online. I needed to write my representatives, but had never done that before. I didn’t even know who my representatives were! After a simple “Who represents me” Google search, I found an easy to use map of North Carolina, put in my address, and there it was. I wrote emails to my House and Senate representatives, explaining my situation and pleaded with them to fund the mandate.

Thus began my advocacy for public education and for my son. I found out my representatives’ voting records, contacted the appropriate senators, and was surprised to find just how partisan the issues surrounding public education really were. Why was doing what’s right for public education a partisan issue? Read more

Commentary

Each win matters: Public education advocates reflect on a year of struggle to solve the class size crisis

[This is the second installment in a series of brief essays by some of the North Carolina advocates who helped lead the fight to repeal the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. You can read the introduction and the first installment by clicking here.]

From Words to Action: Tamika Walker Kelly

My name is Tamika Walker Kelly, I am from Cumberland County, and I am proud to be an elementary school music teacher. I am currently in my 11th year of teaching and each year brings successes and challenges. This year, however, the challenge was not anything inside of my classroom. The challenge involved whether or not I would have a classroom at all.  You will hear many people call my fellow colleagues specialists and indeed, in fact, we are. We are the teachers who cultivate creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills beyond the general classroom. We turn noise into music, mistakes into masterpieces, and movement into art. As parents and guardians, we send our kids to school to have a full educational experience. That cannot happen if there are no arts, physical education or world languages in our public schools.

The class size issue presented us with a false choice: having to choose between smaller class sizes or a complete curriculum that is supposed to be guaranteed by the state. As a parent first and a teacher second, my child and all of our children, deserve to have both. We spent months advocating for a resolution and were busy contacting the General Assembly, emailing, calling and having conversations. We demanded an end to the chaos because our students deserve every resource to experience success, not only in math and reading, but also through music, drama, art, dance, and through the power of words. We often cheer the powerhouse singers, the star athletes, or the brilliant painters who showcase the greatness that comes from North Carolina. We must never let our lawmakers forget that the foundations for all of those stars was, in large part, constructed in elementary school — from the first school play, the first screeching notes on the recorder, to the first 3-point shot.

While we are relieved that HB90 brought us a partial fix to the class size crisis, we are still hurt by the positions already cut in our school district. Read more

Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

Gov. Roy Cooper won’t veto class size, Board of Elections, pipeline omnibus

Gov. Roy Cooper addressed the class size bill Wednesday
at the Executive Mansion (Photo taken by Billy Ball).

Gov. Roy Cooper says he won’t veto an omnibus bill that eases North Carolina’s class size crisis, despite several parts of the bill that he calls “political attacks and power grabs.”

“Our kids in schools are too important,” said Cooper. “But we do need to talk about the bad parts of the bill.”

The legislation, which he characterized as “a sigh of relief that came too late,” phases in class size caps for grades K-3 over the next four years and offers recurring funding for arts, music and physical education teachers that might have been crowded out by districts’ search for cash to fund new classroom educators.

“The class size chaos that this legislature started caused agony and anger and angst across this state for no reason,” said Cooper.

Meanwhile, Cooper said the deal only “partly” resolves the state’s class size headache, pointing out that—as Policy Watch reported today—the accord comes with no funds for school districts’ construction needs arising from the state mandate.

Cooper said school superintendents were “wringing their hands not knowing what to do” over the infrastructure issues. Many districts will have to spend millions to find new classroom space.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen school superintendents that desperate,”said Cooper. “And these legislators let that problem fester for two years.”

Additionally, the state continues to grapple with a teacher shortage that may vex local school leaders’ efforts to fill more classrooms, a point brought up by the governor Wednesday.

“A smaller class size doesn’t do much good with no teacher in it,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s decision likely has little impact on the bill’s fate, considering the GOP-dominated General Assembly has a veto-proof voting majority on the legislation.

Republicans described the package bill, delivered as a conference report on House Bill 90 last week, as pulling together multiple, urgent issues, including a still-brewing court battle over an elections and ethics board merger, as well as a $58 million environmental mitigation fund that Cooper announced shortly after the pipeline received its permits.

GOP lawmakers say Cooper doesn’t have the authority to oversee that fund. They also suggested the Democratic governor negotiated a “quid pro quo” arrangement to secure the pipeline, which Republican legislators also support.

Cooper said Republicans’ actions “imperiled” that mitigation fund, arguing that he wasn’t sure what would become of the funding now. Legislators say they want to spend the cash on school districts along the pipeline’s route.

The governor also chided GOP legislators for another attempt to merge state elections and ethics boards, a move seen as curbing Cooper’s appointment powers. The state Supreme Court ruled in Cooper’s favor in an ongoing lawsuit over the boards, and a lower court is expected to decide soon how to proceed.

Cooper said this component of the bill is an “unconstitutional scheme.”

 

Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

Class size omnibus passes easily, despite stiff opposition to Board of Elections, Atlantic Coast Pipeline provisions

Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

An omnibus bill alleviating some of the headaches associated with North Carolina’s class size crisis easily passed the state House by a 104-12 margin Tuesday, despite continuing opposition from top Democrats on its controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Board of Elections provisions.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who helped to assemble last week’s compromise conference report on House Bill 90, said the bill gives districts “much requested” time to prepare for the state’s new K-3 class sizes by phasing in its caps on average and maximum class size over the next four years.

The legislation, which also creates a $61 million recurring funding allocation for arts, music and physical education teachers, comes after years of mounting pressure on the Republican-dominated General Assembly to either ease their 2016 class size mandate or provide additional funding to save those so-called “enhancement” teaching positions.

As Policy Watch has detailed, local school districts would need to cough up millions or lay off scores of enhancement teachers to find space for the necessary new K-3 classroom teachers.

The legislation also modifies eligibility requirements for the GOP-backed, controversial Personal Education Savings Accounts and purports to provide sufficient funding to clear the waiting list for the state’s widely-backed, Pre-K program.

Multiple Republicans insisted this week and last that the revised House Bill 90, which was crafted behind closed doors, was a “bipartisan” measure.

“We do not have to be separated on this,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, the Cabarrus County Republican who co-chairs the chamber’s education and budget committees.

Yet, while many Democrats ultimately voted for the conference report because of its class size fix, some components of the omnibus bill clearly rankled minority party members in the House and Senate.

One section seeks to control spending from a $58 million environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a fund that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office seeks to administer (Note: See the report today from Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg on the ACP).

Also, a separate portion seeks to merge state elections and ethics panels while curtailing Democrats’ majority on the appointed elections board. The N.C. Supreme Court struck down Republicans’ merger of the panels last month, and GOP lawmakers are seeking to author their own fix before it’s taken up by a lower court.

“This is a difficult vote to take, and it’s difficult because we’re voting on three separate matters,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat who dubbed the package a “kitchen sink bill.”

Democrats also chafed over a lack of school construction funding in the measure.

“This bill does not address the needs in education that we know, Republicans and Democrats both know, are so necessary right now,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat.

Legislative Republicans countered that K-12 infrastructure is historically a local government funding matter in North Carolina. However, state House members have widely supported a statewide $2 billion school construction bond referendum, which would address a portion of the state’s estimated $8 billion in K-12 capital needs, but Senate lawmakers have not taken up the matter.

“Like in all bills, there’s always more work to be done,” said Horn. “I’m looking forward to your support on that more work.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The bill will now proceed to Cooper’s office. Cooper seems likely to veto the bill due to its pipeline and elections portions, although the legislature has the votes to override the Democrat’s veto.

Some Democrats suggested Tuesday that, with state courts still deciding the fate of the legislature’s election board tinkering, the class size fix could be “held hostage” by the legal wrangling.

Rep. Darren Jackson, the House Democratic Leader, said the lack of a severability clause may nix the entire bill if courts find one portion unconstitutional, although a longtime General Assembly attorney cast doubt on that claim this week.


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