State Senate Tangles With School Districts Over K-3 Class Sizes

Apr 3, 2017

Public-school officials are panicking ahead of state-mandated class-size reductions in kindergarten through third grade. School systems say lawmakers gave them an unfunded mandate when they demanded schools cut K-3 class sizes starting next school year.

Lawmakers in the Senate say they already paid for class size reductions, and have even accused districts of financial mismanagement. So what's the real story?

Smaller K-3 classes could mean more 'trailer' classrooms, fewer arts and P.E. teachers

Cedar Fork Elementary in Morrisville is surrounded by a fleet of trailers. These trailers, which the district calls modular spaces, are where the school puts thirteen classes of students that don't fit inside the large brick building. And unless the legislature acts, there may have to be even more modular spaces at Cedar Fork. Assistant principal Jena Kehler said the K-3 class-size change means adding another three kindergarten classrooms. 

"We are currently at capacity, so we would have to look at how we would create locations for the learning environments," she said.

On top of the space issues, Wake and other school districts across the state say they’ll need millions of dollars to hire more K-3 teachers, or they’ll have to fire teachers in music, art and P.E. to make it work.

Meanwhile state senators are balking at school districts’ concerns.

"This was not an unfunded mandate," said Republican Chad Barefoot, who chairs the senate education committee and represents Wake and Franklin Counties. "We sent them tens of millions of dollars to hire new classroom teachers, and all of a sudden they’re telling us that arts and P.E. teachers are going to have to lose their jobs—it’s just not adding up."

Essentially a disagreement over who should control teacher funding

Leading Republican senators put a provision into the 2016 budget funding more teaching positions, with the goal of reducing K-3 class sizes. Research shows smaller class sizes lead to better student outcomes. But they also added language that limited the use of that funding to K-3 classroom teachers, starting in fall 2017. That's where school districts say the problem is, because in the past, they've been able to use teacher funding where they see needs at the local level.

The state house is more sympathetic to school districts than the senate.

"We also told them while we wanted class-size changes that they had the flexibility to use monies...and obviously that’s been done in a number of counties including my own," Henderson House Republican Chuck McGrady said.

Many school districts say if the flexibility goes away, so will a lot of arts, P.E. and music programming. Here's how that works:

With the current model, school districts have discretion with how they use teacher funding. Say a district gets enough funding to pay for one teacher for every 18 kindergartners. But the district thinks its kindergartners are doing ok with classes of 21 or 22 kids, and what they really need are more art teachers. They can keep classes sizes at 21 or 22, and then, use the left over funding to pay for a new art teacher.

Starting next year, state law says that flexibility goes away—nearly all kindergarten classrooms will have to be 18 students or fewer. That means districts will have to hire more K-3 teachers, and maybe say goodbye to teachers in art, P.E., and music.

"Some counties have already started telling those teachers we will not hire you in the fall...and children need that well-rounded education," said Franklin County school board member Paige Sayles. Sayles said Franklin will need an extra $1 million to hire enough K-3 teachers and maintain its current arts and P.E. programming.

Not enough teachers to fulfill the mandate, districts say

Sayles said even if Franklin can get an extra $1 million, she's not confident Franklin will be able to find qualified applicants to lead an additional 18 K-3 classrooms.

"We started the year with substitutes, and we’ve had to put [in] long term substitutes—we still have some of those in our classes," she said.

Most small rural districts like Franklin already face major teacher recruitment challenges. And remember that school over in Wake County? If lawmakers don't act, Wake and other large districts will need hundreds of new teachers, and since they pay better, they’re likely to suck up teachers from surrounding districts—like Franklin, Harnett and Lee.

Sayles and other school board members are hoping lawmakers find a compromise before they have to finalize their local budgets. The House has passed a bill to give back some funding flexibility. But the measure has been met with skepticism in the Senate. Barefoot says his chamber is looking into new policy changes.