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Class-size “fixes” likely to come up short

According to a recent report [1], members of the General Assembly are “in serious negotiations to work out a deal” to address the self-inflicted class-size fiasco. As a refresher, under current law, General Assembly members are requiring school districts dramatically reduce class sizes in grades K-3, but have failed to provide the necessary funding. To meet the unfunded mandate, districts are having to expand class sizes in higher grades, and reduce offerings of “enhancement” courses such as art, physical education, music, and technology. Supposedly, the lawmakers will soon be presenting a plan to address the problems they have created.

Fixing this problem is incredibly easy and can be done with no additional state funds. Lawmakers simply need to repeal the unfunded mandate and re-align class-size requirements with actual funding levels. Such a bill would preserve funding for enhancement courses. Districts like New Hanover could continue their practice of using class-size flexibility to direct smaller classes to its most at-risk students, and districts like Warren County [2] could continue to offer incredibly effective Pre-K courses in its school building.

Luckily, such a bill exists. SB 703 [3] aligns class-size requirements with current funding levels, preserves funding for enhancement classes, and costs nothing. Around this time last year, the effectively same bill passed the House unanimously [4].

Unfortunately, Senate leadership opposes this plan. As a result, General Assembly members are negotiating to “work out a deal.” What they won’t say is whether they will actually fix the problem they created.

As a result, speculation abounds as to what legislation might emerge from these negotiations. Rumors around Raleigh have largely centered on three general approaches:

None of these options fully-address the problem, inflicting unnecessary costs on school districts for no tangible gain.

Continue with lower class-size requirements in 2018-19, but fail to provide full funding for implementation

Fully-funding the additional teachers required to meet next year’s class-sizes requires an additional $304 million [5]. Even then, districts would face millions of dollars of additional capital costs, as they scramble to build additional classrooms and trailers to house the smaller classes.

Anything less than $304 million ensures that districts will have to find ways to absorb some share of the unfunded mandate. It would still mean limiting access to enhancement classes and expanded class-sizes above grade 3. Creating a not-quite-as-bad problem in 2018-19 is no substitute for actually fixing the problem at hand.

Continue with lower class-size requirements in 2018-19, but only provide funding to low-wealth districts.

North Carolina’s low-wealth school districts certainly face more challenges than their wealthier counterparts. However, no district – even the most advantaged – is receiving the necessary funding to allow all of their students to thrive. And the class-size issue is one that disproportionately affects North Carolina’s urban, wealthier school districts. Due to their growing student populations, such districts face daunting capital costs that districts with declining enrollment may not.

For example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders estimate meeting next year’s class-size mandate will require 200 new trailers and renovating and repairing dilapidated, older mobile units [6]. Wake County leaders estimate capital costs of nearly $300 million to create 400 additional classrooms [7].

Foisting an unfunded mandate on districts with greater fiscal capacity does not ensure that those districts will actually have the means to pay for it. Such a policy would burden already underfunded districts, and unnecessarily pit urban and rural districts against each other.

Continue with lower class-size requirements in 2018-19, but provide waivers to schools that are meeting certain achievement thresholds on 3rd grade reading tests

Of the three options, this one would have the most deleterious effect on low-performing students. In North Carolina, student achievement on state tests is closely tied to the parents’ income level [8]. Waivers for high-achieving schools would do nothing to alleviate the unfunded mandate for schools with a large share of students from low-income families. If this option were chosen, students from low-income families would receive fewer enhancement courses and larger grades 4-5 class sizes than their more wealthy neighbors.

All of the options above will needlessly harm school districts. The only question is which districts will be hurt the worst.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If the General wanted to fully fix this problem, they could pass SB 703 [3] on Monday, bringing an end to one of the most frustrating [5], dishonest [9], and outright loopy [10] debates in recent memory.

If members are seriously interested in lowering class sizes in a sensible way that will actually help students, they would be wise to convene policy experts, and educators (per the recommendations of this fantastic piece by CMS teacher Justin Parmenter [11]) to honestly chart out the best way to fund and implement lower class sizes in a way that will help, rather than hurt, North Carolina’s students.