General Assembly must still provide $293 million in teacher money to settle class-size debate

By: - May 8, 2017 12:04 pm

On April 27th, the General Assembly passed, and the Governor signed, House Bill 13, bringing a temporary reprieve to North Carolina’s great class-size debate. The bill delayed the unfunded class-size requirements by one year, preserving elementary school students’ access to “enhancement courses” such as art, music, technology, and physical education for the 2017-18 school year.

In passing the bill, Senate leaders have publicly promised to provide additional funds for enhancement teachers beginning the 2018-19 school year. Despite the pledge, the Senate worryingly voted down an effort by Sen. Jay Chaudhuri to include that funding pledge in the bill’s language. As a result, North Carolina’s class-size controversy remains unsettled. Without a funding guarantee, school districts will once again enter next year’s budget season uncertain whether they will be able to continue providing art, music, technology, and physical education courses to elementary school students.

Absent from the class-size debate has been an estimate of exactly how much additional funding will be required to meet 2018-19 class-size requirements while preserving enhancement classes for students in grades K-3.  To fully-fund class-size requirements and enhancement teachers, the General Assembly will need to increase classroom teacher funding by approximately $293 million in FY 18-19.

Prior to recent-year changes, the state had provided districts with one teacher for every 18 students in grades K-3, but only required districts to maintain average class sizes of 21 students. This flexibility is what has allowed districts to use additional teaching positions to provide enhancement courses or targeted class-size reductions for at-risk students. The historic difference between the allotment ratio (one teacher for every 18 students) and the district average class-size limit (one teacher for every 21 students) meant that districts received one additional teacher for every six teachers needed to meet the district average class-size limit.

Based on district enrollment projections for the 2017-18 school year, North Carolina’s schools will require at least 28,345 teachers in grades K-3 to meet the tightened class-size requirements slated to go into effect in the 2018-19 school year. Based on the historic ratio of one enhancement teacher for every six teachers needed to meet the district average class size limit, schools will need an additional 4,720 teachers to meet 2018-19 class-size requirements while preserving enhancement classes for students in grades K-3. With an average salary and benefits of $61,936 per teacher, fully-funding enhancement teachers will cost approximately $293 million.

While the unfunded class-size requirements do not go into effect until the 2018-19 school year, it is important that the General Assembly provide a commitment to fully-funding enhancement teachers in this year’s budget bill. The 2017 budget covers both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years. Increasing classroom teacher funding by $293 million, effective for the 2018-19 school year, will remove the massive level of uncertainty that created so much chaos for school districts this spring. Absent this guarantee of funding, the class-size controversy will simply repeat itself next spring.

Additionally, the General Assembly should provide this funding as part of the existing classroom teacher allotment, consistent with existing policy. Senator Barefoot has indicated that – to the extent additional money is provided for enhancement teachers – funding would be provided via a new allotment separate from the classroom teacher allotment. This would be a mistake for a number of reasons:

  • The creation of a new allotment would add to the complexity of North Carolina’s school finance system. Each allotment comes with its own unique funding formula and spending rules that must be managed by often overburdened office staff in districts and in Raleigh.
  • There is no good basis for singling out a dedicated allotment just for enhancement teachers in grades K-3. First, school districts hire enhancement teachers across all grade levels, so there is no justification for creating a separate funding stream focused just on these grade levels. Second, enhancement teachers are equally an important part of students’ education as so-called “core” teachers. Districts are better situated than Raleigh politicians to decide the mix of teachers necessary to meet local educational needs and priorities.
  • Mathematically, it is impossible for the district class-size average to equal the allotment ratio. As explained by the Department of Public Instruction’s former Chief Financial Officer, students don’t come to school in neat packages of 16, 17, or 18 students. If the district class-size average is set equal to the allotment ratio, districts will have to shift resources from other allotments to hire additional teachers in grades K-3, particularly in districts with rural, isolated schools that necessarily must hire more teachers per student to offer students the complete curriculum.

Senate budget writers are finalizing their budget proposal, which will be unveiled this week. Senate leadership must understand what is required to fully-fund vital art, music, technology, and physical education courses for our youngest students and then follow-through on their commitment to provide such funding in a way that will maximize student benefits.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.