The Pulse

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

By: - December 15, 2017 9:30 am

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.

The unfunded class-size mandate of 2018-19 remains wholly unfunded

School budget issues are often very confusing, but the continuing controversy regarding class sizes is incredibly simple. Since the 2014-15 fiscal year, the General Assembly has provided school districts with approximately $120 million per year to hire additional teachers and modestly decrease class sizes in grades K-3 effective this current 2017-18 school year.

So far, so good.

But General Assembly leaders have mandated that school districts implement further, more drastic class-size reductions in the 2018-19 school year. This mandate will cost school districts approximately $300 million to hire the additional teachers, and untold millions more to build new classrooms. The General Assembly has failed to appropriate any additional money to fund this second round of class-size reductions (despite promising to do so). There are two incredibly strong pieces of evidence showing that the unfunded class-size mandate of 2018-19 remains wholly unfunded:

  1. 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.
  2. There’s no appropriation giving school districts the resources necessary to meet next year’s class-size requirements.

The thing that Berger and Moore say is there (funding for the class-size mandate) isn’t there, and legislative language admits as such. It’s hard to see how Berger and Moore could be confused on this issue.

For those who prefer a math-based explanation, consider the following. In FY 2013-14, school districts had to maintain an average class-size ratio of 1 teacher for every 21 students in grades K-3. North Carolina has about 450,000 students in grades K-3. Given that number of students, it takes about 21,400 teachers to have an average teacher-student ratio of 1:21. Since FY 2013-14, the General Assembly has increased teacher funding by about $120 million. With each teacher costing about $65,000, $120 million is enough to hire an additional 1,850 teachers. That means the General Assembly has provided districts with enough teachers to bring the average class size down from 21 students to 19.4 students. Yet current law states that the average class size in FY 2018-19 has to be 18 in kindergarten, 16 in grade 1, and 17 in grades 2-3. The General Assembly is about $300 million short of reaching these levels.

There is nothing unclear or ambiguous about this. The General Assembly has failed to fund their class-size requirement. There’s no appropriation for more teachers in the 2017 budget, and the technical corrections bill admits as much. The math doesn’t work. Yet Phil Berger and Tim Moore are both saying that the class-size requirements are “fully funded.”

In an effort to understand their version of the story, I reached out to staff in both Berger and Moore’s offices. Specifically, I asked them to share the data Berger and Moore were using to reach the conclusion that next year’s class-size mandate has been fully-funded. Clearly, no such data exists, but I made several requests, both face-to-face and over email. Neither legislator’s staff has responded with any sort of explanation for their bosses’ false statements.

School districts are spending their teacher money on teachers

Senator Berger’s October 3rd statement contains a second lie, one that has been repeated by other General Assembly members. Berger claims that, “some local school leaders decided to use the extra state funding to benefit their own spending priorities instead of to reduce class sizes.” This statement, too, is provably false.

North Carolina provides school districts their funding via several “allotments.” The biggest allotment – and the means by which districts are expected to meet statewide class-size requirements – is the classroom teacher allotment. It’s true that districts have authority to move their classroom teacher money into other allotments if they would rather not spend the money on teachers, and instead direct the funds to “their own spending priorities.” But are they doing so?

DPI publishes data showing whether a school district has transferred their classroom teacher money for other uses. It’s a bit complicated to find. But 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, district mismanagement is not a meaningful barrier to reaching lower class sizes.

One can also look at district staffing patterns to clearly show that no districts are misspending their classroom teacher funds. As the table at this link shows, every district hires more teachers than the State provides them via the classroom teacher allotment. Every district supplements the teacher positions provided by the State classroom teacher allotment by hiring additional teachers from State funds in other allotments, and by using federal and local funding. Statewide, districts hire 47 percent more teachers than are provided via the classroom teacher allotment. If they had other spending priorities, districts wouldn’t be spending so much of their other money on hiring additional teachers.

Clearly, districts aren’t funneling teacher money out of the classroom. In fact, they’re already using other fund sources to significantly increase the number of teachers they hire. There’s no additional data that General Assembly leaders need to look to. They know how districts are spending their classroom teacher funds on teachers.

Again, I have asked Senator Berger’s staff to provide data showing that district leaders have misspent their classroom teacher funds. They have not responded.

So why is General Assembly leadership lying about this issue?

Unfortunately, it’s unclear why General Assembly leadership continues to lie about the class-size issue. It’s unclear who they think they are fooling. People can look at the data to clearly see they are lying.

Of course, to date, Berger and Moore have faced no consequences for lying about these issues. They’ve been allowed to make their false statements without being corrected by the press. But the people of North Carolina deserve answers. Parents, educators, and members of the press must begin pressing Berger and Moore to explain themselves:

  • Do they really think 115 school districts are conspiring to pretend that the class-size mandate is creating financial and operational hardships?
  • Do they really think students are better off foregoing art, music, and PE to learn in slightly smaller classes?
  • Are they worried that their class-size mandate is consigning 4th and 5th graders in classes of 30 to 40 students?
  • Are they comfortable with counties raising local taxes to build new classrooms?
  • Do they know where school districts can find 4,720 new elementary teachers at a time when enrollment in teacher preparation programs is floundering?

Until Berger and Moore have answered these questions, it’s unclear why the state should move forward with their class-size plan. Barring honest answers, the only rational action is the prompt elimination of the class-size requirements, bringing an end to the chaotic situation they’ve created.

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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.