Class Size Chaos


I have reluctantly concluded that some GOP legislators actually want to hurt public schools. While they say that is not their intention, their recent actions speak louder than words.

I am very reluctant to make this assertion about my colleagues because I believe that political leaders and citizens alike should be able to debate policy differences without questioning motives. I’m particularly hesitant to say that anyone wants to harm schools, and by consequence children, because I’d like to live in a world where no one acts in that way – especially those with the power to affect policy.

What has brought me to this point is an emerging crisis in our state that has picked up the name Class Size Chaos. The General Assembly’s GOP leadership has required school districts to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. To meet this new requirement, school districts will need more classrooms and more teachers. Although I would love to see our young learners in smaller classes, this mandate has consequences that could be catastrophic for our schools.

No Funding, Bad Options

The primary challenge for the class size mandate is that the General Assembly has not adequately funded it. To meet the new class size requirements imposed upon them, school districts will have no choice but to take money from other areas of their budget.

All of these options ultimately hurt children: choosing between increasing class sizes at higher grade levels, eliminating some pre-K programs, or eliminating teaching positions for art, music, and physical education.

No Space for Classrooms

The second challenge is that decreasing class size means that schools need more classrooms. No money at all was provided by the GOP for this. So compliance with the class size mandate is likely to result in classes being crammed into non-traditional spaces such as the stage of a school auditorium. Schools may have to spend their own funds on leasing classroom trailers. To fully meet the mandate, we would have to build dozens of new schools across the state.

Inadequate Teacher Supply

A third challenge is that we may not have enough teaching supply to meet the new demand created by increasing the number of classes. Our state has a teacher shortage, partially because of recent General Assembly’s funding cuts to teacher education. Additionally, the GOP attack on public education has likely discouraged young people from entering the profession. Without enough teachers in the pipeline, there is a real risk that these new, smaller classes will be staffed by temporary or poor-quality teachers. The students in those classrooms may be harmed by this policy, as they would have been better educated in a larger class with a better teacher.

The Urgent Need for a Solution

School districts are starting to plan their budgets for next year. School leaders across the state are raising alarm about the consequences of this policy.

At the General Assembly, there is broad bipartisan agreement in the House that school districts should be given some latitude on the class size requirement, which would make things easier for school districts. But Republican Senate leaders are thus far steadfastly opposed to making any change to the mandate.

One possible compromise that has been floated would be to provide special funding for “enhancement” teachers who teach courses beyond of math and reading. As an educator and a parent, this idea offends me. Enhancement? I consider art, music, physical education, and library to be standard parts of a well-rounded education for our children. Additionally, I’m concerned that setting up a special funding stream for these positions would allow that funding to be choked off later. Additionally, this proposal would not provide a dime for new school buildings or classroom trailers.

The General Assembly is currently in a prolonged Special Session, supposedly to address a number of lingering issues. After dragging on for months, Class Size Chaos still has no agreed upon solution. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the entire North Carolina public education community has lobbied the Senate to address this issue. The prolonged lack of response is what leads me to believe that some legislators actually want to hurt schools.

Who would implement and enforce a policy that will cost school districts millions of dollars, eliminate students’ access to important learning opportunities, and increase class sizes in grades 4-12? Only someone who wants to hurt public schools.

We can do better. I will continue to push for a reasonable and sustainable solution to Class Size Chaos. This type of partisan, unfunded, and ill-considered policy cannot be allowed to stand in the way of North Carolina’s children receiving a great education.

This column was originally published in the News of Orange.