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Other Voices: The class size conundrum

A few weeks ago, we called on state lawmakers to fix a well-meaning mandate to reduce class sizes in primary grades. That mandate came with an unintended consequence for local schools: potentially $3.5 million in new personnel costs and possible cuts to art, music and PE classes.

Legislators responded by sponsoring a bill that would address the problem.House Bill 13, co-sponsored by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, would give schools flexibility on new class limits, staff writer Andrew Mundhenk reported. Public schools and their supporters statewide should encourage legislators to support this fix.

The General Assembly last year passed new limits on class sizes set to go into effect for the 2017-18 school year. The law would lower maximum average class sizes from 21 to 18 students in kindergarten, 16 in first grade and 17 in second and third grades; and lower maximum individual class sizes from 24 to 21 in kindergarten, 19 in first grade and 20 in second and third grades.

The mandate left school systems statewide looking at having to increase class sizes in grades four through 12, hire more staff, and/or cut physical education, music and other elective classes.

The Henderson County system, for example, would either have to ask the county for more money or make adjustments internally. Options include eliminating art, physical education, music and other electives in elementary grades, cutting electives in middle and high schools, and increasing class sizes in grades four through 12.

House Bill 13 would lessen the impact by upping maximum class sizes to 24 students for kindergarten, 22 for first grade and 23 for second and third grade. It would reduce the number of new K-3 teachers Henderson County would have to hire in 2017-18 from 48 to 11.

Many studies have shown benefits of lower student/teacher ratios (smaller class sizes) for younger students. Yet school systems generally have balked at reducing class sizes at the lower grade levels, which is why the General Assembly decided last year to impose the mandate, McGrady said. But the mandate came at a cost.

“Local governments, they don’t print money,” said McGrady, who serves as co-chairman on the House Appropriations Committee. “If they don’t have a huge surplus, which they don’t normally have, they’re looking to have to cut something to fill the requirements of the budget law.”

N.C. Rep. Cody Henson, R-Brevard, co-sponsored House Bill 13. N.C. Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Hendersonville, says he remains committed to reducing class sizes in primary grades, and adds “there is a high level of interest in the Senate to develop a solution.”

With school systems getting ready to prepare budgets, lawmakers statewide should follow the lead of responsive legislators.

— The Times-News of Hendersonville

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