The Pulse

General Assembly’s class-size “fix” a mixed bag

By: - February 8, 2018 5:08 pm

This afternoon, the General Assembly has finally revealed its plan for addressing the unfunded class-size mandate. As a reminder, under current law, General Assembly members are requiring school districts dramatically reduce class sizes in grades K-3 in the next school year, but have failed to provide the necessary funding. To meet the unfunded mandate, districts would have to expand class sizes in higher grades or reduce offerings of “enhancement” courses such as art, physical education, music, and technology.

The General Assembly’s proposed solution is a significant improvement over the status quo, but doesn’t appear to fully address the concerns of public school districts. Additionally, the bill has been paired with several non-education provisions related to the use of Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) mitigation funds and the composition of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

For public schools, the bill does the following:

  • Directs the $57.8 million in funding in the ACP Mitigation Fund to school districts located along the path of the ACP
  • Phases in lower K-3 class sizes per the schedule below

  • Creates a new allotment for enhancement teachers that will grow to about $246 million by FY 2021-22, based on the assumption that schools need one enhancement teacher for every 191 students in grades K-5

  • Expands the eligibility criteria for the Personal Education Savings Accounts (PESAs) voucher program, granting eligibility to grade 2-12 students who had not previously been enrolled in a public school
  • When compared to already-planned funding levels, expands NC Pre-K by about $26 million in FY 2019-20, growing to $36 million in FY 20-21; ultimately adding approximately 7,000 additional Pre-K slots

For North Carolina’s public schools, this is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s far superior to what districts are currently facing: a pure unfunded mandate. On the other hand, the proposal falls short of a well-considered plan for reducing class size.

Class size changes

According to the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research staff, the new enhancement teacher allotment should allow districts to maintain their existing number of elementary grade enhancement teachers. However, the new allotment formula would be a break from past budgeting practice, whereby districts were provided one enhancement teacher for every six “regular” classroom teachers. Had the General Assembly decided to continue this practice, school districts would be receiving an additional $58 million above the new plan.

The new formula lays bare the inadequacy of state funding for our elementary school students. Under the proposed formula, small districts such as Hyde and Tyrell would receive just 1.5 enhancement teacher positions. It is unclear how these districts will be able to provide art, music, and physical education instruction with just 1.5 teachers. The General Assembly should consider a more adequate formula going forward that provides funding based on what each school actually needs to provide students with the required curriculum.

Further, it is unfortunate that General Assembly members are creating a new allotment. Lawmakers’ primary criticism of our school finance system is that there are too many allotments, each with their own distribution formula and set of spending rules. Creating a new allotment simply adds to this problem. Additionally, this new allotment further constricts district spending decisions, even though districts are better situated than Raleigh politicians to decide the mix of “regular” and “enhancement” teachers necessary to meet local educational needs and priorities.

Pre-K changes

The expanded funding for NC Pre-K is unambiguously positive. Prior to the Recession, North Carolina funded approximately 34,000 pre-k slots. Upon taking control of the General Assembly, Republicans slashed approximately 6,000 slots. The additional funding provided in this bill would finally bring the number of slots above pre-Recession levels. According to legislators, the funding should be sufficient to fully-fund those on waiting lists. But pre-k experts warn that waiting list data is unreliable. This funding will still leave the state well short of universal access.

PESA changes

The expanded PESA voucher eligibility ensures that the program – already deeply flawed – will mostly serve to subsidize the educational costs of students enrolled in private schools. One purported benefit of voucher programs is that they can be designed in a way to save the state money. Today’s proposed change ensures that the North Carolina will not recognize any budgetary savings from its PESA voucher, and likely portends expanded program funding in future years.


Ultimately, this bill is an improvement over the status quo. But our schools deserve better. A sensible class-size reduction plan would account for:

  1. The additional operating costs of $304 million
  2. The capital costs school districts will incur to build new classrooms
  3. Building the supply of high-quality teachers

Today’s compromise only addresses the first of those criteria. By failing to provide additional capital funding, many districts will be forced to sacrifice funding in other areas in order to build more schools. Without building the teacher pipeline, these new, smaller K-3 classrooms might be led by less effective teachers, which would off-set the benefits of lower class sizes.

That said, the parents and other public school advocates who have worked tirelessly to seek a solution to this fiasco should be proud. Their demonstrations, emails, letters, phone calls, and General Assembly visits forced a reluctant Senate to seek compromise. While the proposed solution may fall short of what many had hoped for, today’s proposal would undoubtedly be even less ambitious absent public pressure. Additionally, this bill’s one-year delay allows advocates to keep working towards a more complete solution that will take into account capital costs, teacher pipeline issues, as well as addressing ballooning class sizes in upper grades.

One must also consider the opportunity cost of this plan. The biggest issue facing our public school students is not the size of K-3 classes; it’s the plethora of poverty-related barriers faced by students from low-income families across all grade levels. Imagine if North Carolina’s education policy leaders had instead spent the past two years focused on removing poverty-related barriers to student success. Certainly, expanding NC Pre-K would have been part of that conversation. But the time, energy, and money spent on this class size issue could have also helped expand child nutrition, mental health, after-school programs, teacher assistants, lead abatement, vision, and dental programs that would likely have a greater impact on student learning.

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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.