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New class-size proposal in General Assembly would phase in lower class-size caps

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Republicans late Monday unveiled compromise legislation to prevent school districts from potentially having to cut supplemental programs or that could cause crowding in some classrooms next fall.

The measure is intended to meet more slowly a mandate to reduce average class sizes in early grades.

The bill, approved by the Senate education committee, addresses upcoming requirements to reduce the maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade that would more closely match state funding to hire teachers in these grades.

The measure instead would phase in those reductions over two years, meeting those lower classroom sizes by fall 2018. The new version of a House bill that eased the restrictions also includes requirements for local districts to report more frequently and with more detail about how state money dedicated to K-3 class size reduction — at least $70 million annually — is being used.

“We are pleased to finally arrive at this solution that we believe gives administrators, teachers, parents and students certainty about what will happen next school year, while making sure taxpayers are getting the smaller classes that they paid for,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake. He spoke ahead of a unanimous vote by the committee. The bill still must go to another Senate panel before reaching the floor.

Local superintendents, teachers and parents have been worried that making the jump to lower class sizes set in current law would result in districts eliminating staffing for art, music and physical education classes, which is often paid for with money for traditional classroom teachers.

The North Carolina Justice Center, a liberal-leaning group, estimated in a report that school districts statewide would have to locate between 3,000 and 5,400 teachers in grades K-3 to comply with the class size change. Others said more students in classrooms in grades 4-12 also could result.

Barefoot criticized unnamed superintendents for boosting fears of job losses. But he said Republicans are committed to dedicating specific funds starting in the 2018-19 school year to pay for supplemental program instructors.

Katharine Joyce, executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, said Monday’s measure “provides a reasonable timeline for further reducing class sizes in K-3.” House Republicans also are on board with the new measure, said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, a sponsor of a preliminary compromise.

The state distributes money for classroom teachers based on a teacher-student ratio. But for years, districts have been able to have classes for kindergarten through third grade with sizes that are somewhat larger on average than the number of students cited in the ratio.

Other money would in turn pay for supplemental instructors.

Without any changes to state law, the average class size in a district for K-3 classrooms would have to equal the funding allocated starting next fall. For example, the state gives money to each district to hire one kindergarten teacher for every 18 students. The average class size in a district would be limited to 18 students as well.

Under Monday’s proposal, the average class size for kindergarten in a district could be no higher than 20 students next fall before falling to 18 in the 2018-19 school year. In grades 1-3, where the funding allotment is one teacher for either 16 or 17 students, the class size average in a district could be no higher than 20 students as well —  before falling to those allotment levels in 2018-19.

Monday’s bill also would phase-in limits on the maximum size of any single K-3 class for the next two years.

Joyce said districts can comply with next fall’s class requirements without financial constraints that the current law would have demanded.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, called the new bill a “short-term fix.”

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