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.


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


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


The violent results of historic underinvestment in our state’s schools on display as “Infrastructure Week” ends

A recent video by EdNC documented the struggles of Edgecombe County community residents in the wake of the devastating hurricane that swept through the region last fall. The disaster has a particularly acute and devastating effect on children- many of whom remain displaced and who lack reliable and consistent access to basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. The psychological trauma will undoubtedly have a lasting impact and our children, the most vulnerable members of any community, will suffer the most harm if we fail to address their needs. In addition, we must take steps to remedy the underlying inequalities surrounding how we support our infrastructure needs.

The federal government has delivered just $6 million dollars in relief funding, less than one percent of the $929 million Gov. Cooper requested. This amount can only add insult to injury in a region where chronic under investments have left public infrastructure more at risk than any other part of our state.

The need to address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is a point most democrats and republicans can agree on. In signaling its commitment to the issue, the Trump White House declared the week of June 7th, “infrastructure week.”

What has yet to be determined in Trump’s $200 billion dollar infrastructure spending proposal (privatize everything and rely on limited ‘public-private partnerships’ where necessary), is the fate of our nation’s second largest sector of public infrastructure spending (after highways): school facilities.

While K-12 schools account for the largest public building sector in the country, the federal government provides almost no funding for capital construction. In North Carolina, our state constitution and school finance law requires the funding for instructional expenses, including school personnel, to come from the state while local counties are responsible for funding capital expenses, including school building construction and maintenance. Statewide and local bond measures are an additional way to generate funds for capital construction. This division accounts for the discrepancies in education investments made across counties and reinforces the economic disparities existing in communities as children from low wealth school districts are being educated in deteriorating, often unsafe and unhealthy school buildings.

In spring of 2016, the report The State of Our Schools: America’s K-12 Facilities determined that underinvestment in public school facilities will account for a $46 billion projected annual gap in funding.

Nationally, states and districts spent a total of $925 billion in 2014 dollars on maintenance and operations (M&O): daily cleaning, grounds keeping, maintenance, utilities, and security of facilities. This amount equaled an annual average of nearly $46 billion per year for M&O over these 20 years. From 2011–2013, spending increased to an average of $50 billion a year.
In addition to M&O spending, states and districts invested $973 billion in 2014 dollars (an average of $49 billion per year), from their capital budgets for new school construction and capital projects to improve existing schools. Over the past three years (2011-13), the combined spending and investment totaled nearly $99 billion per year.

The nation’s current system of facilities funding leaves school districts unprepared to provide adequate and equitable school facilities. Comparing historic spending against building industry and best-practice standards for responsible facilities stewardship, we estimate that national spending falls short by about $8 billion for M&O and $38 billion for capital construction. In total, the nation is underspending on school facilities by $46 billion — an annual shortfall of 32 percent. Gaps vary by state and local district, depending on investments by local communities and the structure of school facilities funding at the state level. Nevertheless, investment levels in all states but three will not meet the standards.

In addition to the unmet funding needs, North Carolina’s student population is projected to increase by 6% or more by fall 2026.[1] In the next five years, Read more


How North Carolinians ought to say “thanks” on Teacher Appreciation Day

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day — an event that will spur many of us to send a brief note of appreciation or chip in toward a gift card. And while most teachers will acknowledge that these annual gestures really do provide a helpful reminder that they are in fact appreciated, the hard truth is that day-to-day evidence in North Carolina classrooms (e.g. low pay, budget cuts, privatization and the proliferation of high stakes testing) points in the opposite direction.

Despite being home to a nationally celebrated early childhood education program, NC-PreK, and having more National Board Certified Teachers than any other state in the nation, North Carolina’s teacher salaries fell more than in any other state between 2000 and 2013. More recently, the job security of “specialty” teachers like art, music and P.E. teachers has also been in limbo throughout 2017 due to new and unfunded class size requirements.

The state’s education funding formula is also one of the most complex and least effective in meeting the needs of low-income students. A 2015 study found that, 80% of voters agree that “state policy and funding decisions are putting greater burdens on our local schools and giving them fewer resources to educate our students.” North Carolinians seem to understand that the state is falling short on its promise of providing an equal and high quality education to all our children.

North Carolina also remains one of the ten lowest states for average teacher pay and expenditures per student and spends less on education compared to surrounding states. And for better or worse, these measures are seen as a key indicator for the quality of our education. As a result, our low rankings reduce our appeal for companies and skilled workers looking to relocate.

If we are really serious about providing a genuine and meaningful “thanks” to our teachers there are some obvious steps we must take.

Respect teachers and their expertise  Read more