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House, Senate leadership push plan to ease North Carolina class size crisis

State House and Senate leaders in the N.C. General Assembly say they have a plan for easing North Carolina’s class-size tumult.

Senate and House K-12 leaders announced details at a press conference Thursday afternoon, rolling out a four-year, phase-in plan for the deal and $61 million in recurring funding for “enhancement” teachers—arts, music, world language and physical education teachers.

[Update] The changes were bundled into revisions of House Bill 90. The bill also seeks to seize control of an environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that is slated to be controlled by Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. Furthermore, it delves into Cooper and the legislature’s ongoing battle over the State Board of Elections—both provisions that are likely to spur the ire of Cooper’s office.

The deal is said to retain the “status quo” for class sizes in the upcoming 2018-2019 school year. Advocates hope it will offer long-term assurances to head off the partisan clashes on K-3 classrooms that have dominated the last two years at the legislature.

“This has been one of the General Assembly’s top priorities for years,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican who co-chairs the Senate education budget committee. “From parents to legislators and even Gov. Cooper, I think it’s a goal that we all support.”

Lawmakers say they arrived at the deal after weeks of closed-door negotiations over the fate of North Carolina’s K-3 mandate, which began in 2016 when GOP legislators ordered local school districts to slash class sizes in the early grades.

Some Republican budget writers said they sought smaller classrooms, but a wave of criticism from Democrats, local districts and public school advocates urged action before school systems were forced to cough up millions or lay off potentially thousands of arts, music and P.E. teachers.

Such “specialty” or “enhancement” teachers were at risk because the state mandate, without additional state funding, would have left local leaders scrambling to find budget space to hire classroom teachers in the core subjects in order to reduce class sizes.

Advocates also warned that the directive would imperil Pre-K programs, pack classes in grades 4-12 and cost districts millions to find new classroom space. Legislators said the plan would end the state’s waiting list for its Pre-K program.

On Thursday, Barefoot called the class size crisis “one of the most difficult issues I’ve had to resolve as a legislator.”

The bill includes a dedicated funding stream for enhancement teachers, Republicans said. And while the “core” classroom teacher allotment will be restricted to that use, the enhancement teacher allotment can also be spent on classroom teachers, Barefoot said.

“Make no mistake, we are determined to lower average class sizes,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee. “That is a high priority for us, we’re pursuing that. We’re just going to stage it out, rather than doing it in one fell swoop.”

[Update] Members of a joint legislative budget committee approved the GOP-authored legislation—which includes a plan to relax some eligibility restrictions for Personal Education Savings Accounts—Thursday afternoon. Of particular import: The bill strips the requirement that an eligible recipient must have been a full-time student in a public school.

The controversial program provides a debit card for families of children with special needs to spend on private school enrollment.

Horn said the new guidelines were intended to address children with special needs who may not be full-time students, pointing out some children may only attend a traditional school setting half a day before departing for another facility.

“They fell through the cracks on that,” said Horn. “This solves that problem.”

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, helped to negotiate the fix, legislators said. On Thursday, Joyce called the bill a “viable solution.”

“We believe this phase-in period will provide the time needed for those important next steps,” said Joyce.

A Democratic-proposed resolution that would stave off class size cuts this year has yet to move in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, although Democrats who spoke to Policy Watch Thursday said it seemed likely that party members would vote for today’s GOP-written measure, despite its jabs at Cooper.

Meanwhile, legislative leadership, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, expressed support for the pact.

Moore called the deal a “great collaboration” between both chambers. “Schools are going to be even better off next year than they are this year,” he said.

Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy group from Raleigh, said the legislation provides “badly-needed certainty” for districts. Poston also complimented lawmakers for their Pre-K provision.

“We applaud members of the General Assembly for putting forth legislation that invests more in early education learning and provides a reasonable pathway to realize lower class sizes in our public schools,” Poston said in a statement.

Updates as they become available.

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