The Pulse

Op-Ed: Legislature should act on looming class size crisis for North Carolina schools

By: - March 8, 2017 4:30 pm

In November, Policy Watch reported on an imminent class size headache for North Carolina public schools that could force districts across the state to mull cutting arts and physical education courses at the elementary level.

Now, with the momentum behind a bipartisan resolution to the state’s class-size problem seemingly waning in the state Senate, an op-ed in The News & Observer warns state lawmakers of the potential problems for already financially-stressed local school districts.

Thurston Domina, an associate professor of educational policy and sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill,  says legislators should avoid meddling in an issue best left to local governments. 

From the N&O:

The idea of mandating smaller class sizes for North Carolina public elementary schools feels like a no-brainer. As a professor of education, I agree with those who point out the research is clear. When Tennessee implemented a vast class size experiment, randomly assigning some students to classes of 17 students and others to classes of 25, they learned that small class assignment substantially improves student learning. This was particularly true for poor and minority students. What’s more, teachers, parents, and students all love the idea of smaller class sizes. So, the General Assembly’s move to reduce maximum class sizes in K-3 classrooms across the state from 24 students to 19 to 21 (depending on the grade level) seemed utterly sensible. After all, what could go wrong?

Plenty. First, to demand smaller classes without additional budget requires schools to make serious cuts in existing programs. Second, the implementation of this idea in other states has shown that budget decisions work best for students when they’re made at a school level, not by politicians looking for a talking point about how they reduced class size.

This spring, school leaders across the state are anxiously trying to figure out how to stretch budgets that are already insufficient in order to meet the General Assembly’s unfunded class size reduction mandate. As The News & Observer reported on March 4, since the legislature provided no new funding to help meet the new class size requirements, the mandates force harsh cuts elsewhere in school budgets. Wake County Public Schools would need to hire 460 new teachers in order to meet the requirement. Durham is projecting a $6.3 million budget shortfall. To meet this shortfall, elementary art, music, and PE teacher jobs are on the cutting block across the state.

The North Carolina House, recognizing that the original law was ill-considered and that smaller class sizes can’t be bought on the cheap, has passed an amended HB 13, which substantially relaxes the class size mandate. But that amendment is languishing in the state Senate, where the Education Committee’s leadership has delayed the vote. Committee co-chairman Chad Barefoot in particular questions the choices that school districts make when given discretion over the use of state funds.

As Policy Watch has noted multiple times in its reporting, House Republicans say the problems stemming from the new class size mandate were unintended, although one former legislative analyst has disputed that notion.

Yet, some GOP lawmakers have publicly questioned whether the state’s public schools are misusing their funding allotments, although not providing any specific examples of alleged wrongdoing.

While relating some of the more negative aspects of California’s own attempts to limit class sizes, Domina goes on to argue for state officials to maintain local flexibility over how they set class sizes.

From the op-ed:

Even the most well-intentioned legislative interventions can go wrong in any one of a million ways. It’s entirely appropriate in a democracy for the public to articulate standards, set ambitious goals, and allocate resources to help our public schools. But legislators simply cannot understand and respond to the diverse local contexts in which North Carolina’s educational leaders work.

We ought to show our teachers and principals the respect they deserve by giving them the flexibility they need to do their jobs well. Rather than repeating the mistakes of California’s legislature, the North Carolina state legislature should stop micromanaging the state’s public schools. The House’s amended HB 13 takes an important step in that direction by relaxing the class size mandate. The Senate should act immediately to pass this amendment.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.