Commentary

Top 10 class-size chaos talking points

Male Pupil In High School Art Class

The General Assembly returns to Raleigh on Wednesday, January 10. Public school advocates across the state will be pressing for leadership to bring an end to the class-size chaos inflicted upon North Carolina school districts via the General Assembly’s unfunded class-size mandate.

As most readers know, the General Assembly has passed a law requiring school districts to substantially lower class sizes in grades K-3 beginning in the 2018-19 school year. However, the General Assembly has failed to provide districts with the operating and capital funds necessary to implement the mandate. To meet the unfunded mandate, districts will need to find other sources of funds to hire additional K-3 teachers. Many districts are resorting to reducing “enhancement” courses such as art, music, PE, or technology. Others are dramatically increasing class sizes in grades 4 and 5 to shift those teachers to lower grades. Neither strategy is in the best interest of students, but without funding, districts have few options.

January represents a great opportunity for the General Assembly to right this wrong. Fixing the problem can be done at no cost if the General Assembly were simply to repeal the unfunded class-size requirement. The problem needs to be fixed well before the General Assembly’s next session in May to allow school districts to properly budget for next year. Still, advocates are running into a common set of talking points from General Assembly members (mostly in the Senate) who are strangely committed to their unfunded class-size policy. The responses below will hopefully assist public school advocates in overcoming the most common General Assembly excuses.

  1. “We’ve fully-funded the class-size requirements”

In FY 2013-14, school districts had to maintain an average class-size ratio of one teacher for every 21 students in grades K-3. Based on the number of students in those grades, it requires nearly 6,600 additional teachers to bring class sizes down to the levels required in FY 2018-19. The General Assembly provided some additional teacher funds in the 2014 and 2016 budgets, increasing 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.

The General Assembly’s own budget bill shows that the mandate remains unfunded. Following the passage of this year’s budget, General Assembly leaders passed a “technical corrections” bill. The bill includes language admitting to their failure to fund next year’s class-size mandate, saying that it is the General Assembly’s “intent” to provide the funding at some point in the future.

  1. “We need more data on how districts are spending their teacher money”

DPI publishes data showing whether a school district has transferred their classroom teacher money for other uses. In FY 2016-17, just four districts transferred any money out of their classroom teacher allotment. The transfers totaled just $1.1 million. In that same year, districts received $4.1 billion of classroom teacher money. In other words, districts spent 99.972 percent of their classroom teacher money on teachers last year. Clearly, districts are spending their teacher money on teachers and there is no lack of data preventing General Assembly action.

  1. “We had no idea it would cause this many issues”

According to Kris Nordstrom, a former staffer with the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division, General Assembly budget writers were warned of the negative impacts of their class size requirements as far back as 2015. In addition to warnings from staff, General Assembly budget writers received warnings from multiple school district finance officers.

  1. “Fixing this can wait until May”

State law requires superintendents to submit budget requests to their boards of education by May 1 of each year. Additionally, districts must begin the process of making personnel decisions. Districts are required to provide written notice to dismissed teachers, provide procedures for appeals, and make payments for accumulated leave. Such decisions will need to be made well in advance of the start of the short session in May.

  1. “The adjournment resolution prevents us from addressing class size in January”

The General Assembly gets to change laws whenever they want to. If leadership wants to change the terms of the adjournment resolution, they can.

Regardless, fixing the unfunded class-size mandate falls within the terms of the adjournment resolution. The resolution permits “Bills making technical corrections to S.L. 2017 57, S.L. 2017 119, or both.” S.L. 2017-57 is the very budget bill that fails to fund the class-size requirements that go into effect in FY 2018-19. Yet Sen. Berger and Rep. Moore are under the incorrect assumption that they already funded the FY 18-19 class-size requirements. Clearly, there was an error in S.L. 2017-57 that needs correcting.

  1. “School districts have just misspent the money we gave them”

In the two years that the unfunded class-size issue has been debated, not one member has provided any evidence of this claim. As explained above, districts spent 99.972 percent of their classroom teacher money on teachers in FY 2016-17. Additionally, every district in the state supplements the teacher positions provided by the State classroom teacher allotment by: 1) hiring additional teachers from State funds in other allotments and 2) using federal and local funds. Statewide, districts hire 47 percent more teachers than are provided via the classroom teacher allotment. Districts are already going above and beyond to fill holes in the state’s insufficient funding of teachers.

  1. “Districts don’t have to build more classrooms, they can just use innovative approaches like co-teaching”

It is unclear where this claim comes from. Have members conducted a physical audit of school capacity across the state? According to a recent polling of elementary teachers, their classrooms would not be able to physically accommodate the number of students necessary to implement co-teaching approaches to meet the class-size requirements. Further, there is zero evidence that students in large co-taught classrooms with multiple teachers receive the same educational benefits as students in smaller classrooms with one teacher.

  1. “We’ll fix this with a school bond”

First, there’s no indication that the General Assembly has any intention to pass the Public School Building Bond Act. They did not bring it to a floor vote last year.

Second, the proposed state bond would only provide schools with $1.9 billion of funding capacity. According to the 2015-16 Statewide Facility Needs Survey, North Carolina school districts have $8.1 billion of facility needs, and that was before taking into account the additional costs created by the unfunded class-size mandate.

Finally, the unfunded class-size mandate goes into effect July 1, 2018. Clearly, no facilities will be built by any yet-to-be-authorized state bonds before July 1.

  1. “This is just a Wake County issue”

A brief review of newspapers across the state shows that the unfunded class-size mandate is creating unnecessary budget and operational issues in the following districts: Alamance-Burlington, Asheville CityBertieBrunswickBuncombe CountyChapel Hill-CarrboroCharlotte MecklenburgClinton CityCravenDurhamElizabeth City-PasquotankForsythGreeneGuilfordHendersonIredell-StatesvilleJohnstonLeeNew HanoverNorthamptonOnslowOrangePenderRowan-SalisburySampsonSurry, and Warren.

  1. “I support public schools”

Lawmakers must prove this claim by repealing the unfunded class-size mandate this January.

Looking for more information? Join us today, Monday 12/18 4:30-5pm for a Face Book Live discussion on the #ClassSizeChaos issue and to learn about next steps for taking action throughout January.  Hosted by the NC Justice Center and Pubic Schools First. Can’t make the discussion? Spread the word by sharing with family and friends. And join us and other public school advocates from across the state on January 6th for the Rally to End Class Size Chaos at 1 pm on the Halifax Mall.

Commentary

Why can’t General Assembly leadership stop lying about their unfunded class-size mandate?

On October 3rd, a group of parents rallied at the North Carolina Legislative Building to demand that General Assembly leadership repeal or responsibly fund the unfunded class-size mandate due to go into effect in the upcoming 2018-19 school year. The rally drew a troubling response from Phil Berger, President Pro Tem of the North Carolina State Senate:

“Even though some local school leaders decided to use the extra state funding to benefit their own spending priorities instead of to reduce class sizes, those reductions have already been fully funded,”

About three weeks later, Speaker of the House, Tim Moore, was asked to weigh in on the class-size issue. He, too, gave a worrisome response, saying, “We have funded the positions.”

Why are these responses so troubling? They are wholly untrue, indicating that the two most powerful men in state government either fail to understand the biggest issue facing North Carolina’s public schools, or are purposefully lying about the issue. Read more

Commentary

Task Force on Education Finance Reform meeting shows need for new approach

Yesterday marked the third meeting of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. The Task Force is charged with creating recommendations by October 2018 to overhaul the way North Carolina funds its public schools. It’s a big, important task. One would assume that the General Assembly would only embark on such an undertaking based on a deep understanding of how the state’s existing school finance system works and what specific problems they hope to remedy through a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, yesterday’s meeting laid bare what little effort General Assembly leaders have made in understanding how our school finance model works. Their ignorance bodes poorly for anyone hoping that the Task Force will lead to better outcomes for our students.

This third meeting featured two presentations from the Department of Public Instruction. First, DPI’s Chief Financial Officer, Adam Levinson, presented on how North Carolina funds its public schools. In the second presentation, DPI’s Director of School Business, Alexis Schauss, provided the Task Force with a detailed accounting of how the agency implements the budget, distributes funds to school districts, and gathers data.

Both presentations contain important, detailed information. The problem is that they contain the type of information you need to know before you make the decision to overhaul the state’s school finance system, not after. You can’t say the current system is broken and needs replacement without first understanding how the existing system works.

And based on yesterday’s meeting, it was clear that Task Force members have no idea how the existing system works. Read more

Commentary

Legislature creates school funding task force, but appears unwilling and unable to seriously examine NC’s school funding needs

This week, the General Assembly announced which legislators will serve on the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. The Task Force, created via the 2017 budget bill, is charged with developing recommendations to radically overhaul North Carolina’s school finance system. A serious review of North Carolina’s school finance system could substantially benefit the state. School funding matters, particularly for students in low-income families. Unfortunately, early indications suggest that the Task Force is uninterested in reforms that would actually improve educational delivery in the state.

School finance can seem quite complicated. Revenue for public schools is collected from a variety of sources. In North Carolina, approximately 63 percent of funding comes from the state, 26 percent from local funds, and 11 percent from the federal government. These funds are then distributed to 115 school districts and 173 charter schools using a number of formulas; some of which can be quite simple, others quite complicated. To make things more complicated, each state has a unique method for collecting school revenues and distributing those funds to school districts. It’s all too easy to get lost in the weeds.

Yet school finance is quite simple when we take a step back from the details. Ultimately, we want to know two things:

  1. Are we providing enough money to allow every school district to develop students who are ready to successfully enter college or a career?
  2. Is school funding being distributed in accordance with student need, ensuring that a child has the same opportunities for success regardless of zip code or family circumstances?

In school-finance terms, the first question asks whether our school funding is “adequate.” The second question is asking whether school funding is “equitable.”

Unfortunately, the Task Force isn’t required to examine either of these issues. Despite the efforts of the education community, General Assembly budget writers refused to add language requiring the Task Force to examine the adequacy or equity of North Carolina’s school finance system. This is the equivalent of someone confronting their weight problem, but refusing to consider their diet or exercise. Read more

Commentary

U.S. teacher pay gap (possibly) worst in developed world

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), teacher pay in the United States ranks last among the 18 OECD member nations with available data in terms of competitiveness with other professions. In the United States, primary grade (elementary) teachers’ salaries are just 57 percent of the salaries of similarly-educated workers in other professions. Similarly, the report finds that upper secondary (high school) teachers’ salaries are just 59 percent of what they might earn on average if they had pursued another career.

This salary competitiveness gap has huge implications at every level of the US education system. Teachers are the most important classroom factor when it comes to improving student performance. The impact is especially pronounced for low-income and minority students. It’s therefore vital that schools attract and retain the most talented candidates possible into the teaching profession. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of potentially wonderful teaching candidates refuse to even consider teaching as a viable profession due to pay concerns.

Countries with high-performing education systems understand the importance of attracting and retaining high-quality teaching candidates into the profession. Every other country studied pays more competitive teacher salaries than the United States. For example, teachers in the United Kingdom earn salaries approximately 80 percent of their peers in other professions. In the much-lauded Finnish school system, upper secondary teacher salaries are essentially on par with the salaries offered by other professionals.

Of course, North Carolina teacher salaries are especially non-competitive. The Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of teacher salaries from 2011 to 2015 found North Carolina had the second-least competitive teacher salaries in the country. My own analysis of US Census data from 2010 to 2014 found that North Carolina teachers earned about 57 percent of other similarly-educated professionals in the state. North Carolina’s teachers would require pay raises between 25 to 43 percent to start earning just 80 percent of their similarly-educated North Carolina peers in other professions.

Thankfully, the state has made some progress on teacher pay. The most recently-passed budget should increase average teacher pay in the state by about 6.6 percent over the upcoming biennium, and enrollment in UNC system education programs has increased for the first time since at least 2010. These are positive signs, but the OECD report is a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done to develop a world-class teaching profession in North Carolina.