Legislators are hearing a lot about the class size issue. To read some letters to the editor (and most of my emails from people on the subject), one would assume that the legislature changed the rules and now needs to pay for the class size changes it has mandated. The problem with that narrative is that the legislature is paying for its class size mandates. The only change is that next year, districts will have less flexibility to opt out of the class size restrictions the legislature has been funding for years. What is noteworthy is that almost everyone agrees that we ought to have lower class sizes for our youngest students. The disagreement is simply about money.
A Simple Explanation of the Problem
Currently, school districts (known as “LEAs” or “Local Education Authorities”) have the flexibility to fund “program enhancement” (music, art, drama, P.E., etc.) teachers through the classroom teacher allotment provided by the legislature for teacher allotment ratios that are lower than average class size ratios. In the 2018-19 school year, school districts will no longer have that flexibility and many may have to find other resources to fund those teachers. Without additional resources some districts may have to cut some program enhancement teachers or raise the class size averages of grades 4-12 to comply.
A Longer Explanation and History of Class Size Requirements
The state pays for most education costs that are programmatic: teachers, textbooks, supplies, etc. It also pays for transportation, primarily buses. A county or a city that has a school district pays for most of the capital items, primarily buildings. The state provides funding to each school system through an “allotment” which is mostly based on the size of the school system — in other words, the student census. Thus, there is a teacher allocation to pay for teachers’ salaries; other allocations are related to principals, textbooks (or electronic media), supplies, transportation, and a range of other things.
The class size issue is not new; the legislature has been instituting class size restrictions for the past four decades. Prior to 1995, there were separate allotments for classroom teachers and program enhancement teachers. In 1995, those allotments were consolidated into one allotment that included funding for both classroom teachers and program enhancement teachers.
Over the years as the legislature changed the teacher allotment ratio, it did not always correspond with an average class size requirement change. This is best shown through this chart:
Previously, school systems had flexibility with the classroom size requirements and more money to do so because the teacher allotment ratio was lower than the class size average ratio for the school systems (as seen in the chart above). The funds districts received in the allotment ratio that were above the class size requirements, were often used to pay for program enhancement teachers.
The current class size discussion was precipitated by the reductions of flexibility. If one looks at the chart above, one can see the reduction in flexibility. Notice that in 2016-17, the allotment ratio, average class sizes, and individual class size maximums were further apart allowing more money and more flexibility for the school districts to fund their teachers.
In the 2018-19 school year, those numbers are compressed, therefore, school systems will have less flexibility to fund program enhancement teachers. Many school districts claim that, in order to meet the new requirements, they will either no longer be able to fund their program enhancement teachers OR they will have to increase the class sizes of grades 4-12 (which are not under the same class size restrictions).
School building and other capital needs, may also be an issue. If a school is at capacity and suddenly has to have smaller class sizes, then it will need additional classrooms. This is a cost that is borne by the school system, not the state.
The following chart reflects how teacher allotments have changed over the past few years:
So How Can the Problem Be Solved?
Both the House and the Senate are looking into the feasibility of creating a separate allotment for program enhancement teachers. However, one has to remember the original bill on which I was the lead sponsor, House Bill 13 [Class Size Requirement Changes], would have almost completely alleviated the problems school systems are facing by restoring current flexibility. In other words, it would have largely restored the status quo. Of course, lower class sizes are clearly better for younger students, so one has to wonder whether restoring the status quo is the right approach.
In retrospect, the legislature should have created a glide path for school districts to adjust their class sizes in the lower grades. With time, classrooms could be built and teacher allocations adjusted.
The class size fix isn’t nearly as hard as some other problems that have been addressed, e.g. reforming the unemployment compensation program and paying back the federal government its several billion dollar loan. My concern is not that we wouldn’t enact a fix, but that we will act too late. If this issue is going to be fixed it needs to be done in the next few months, otherwise school systems are going to have to adopt budgets before action is taken. That means that some art and PE teachers will have to be reassigned or laid off while more teachers for lower grades will have to be hired.
I know the House and its leadership on both sides of the aisle want to fix the issue. The House can’t fix this issue on its own; it needs to work with the Senate. Governor Cooper wants a fix, but he doesn’t make the law or appropriate money. My expectation is that he’ll support a fix that solves the problem or gives us more time to solve the problem. If the legislature waits to take action until it adopts a budget in the Short Session in May, June or later, whatever remedy is adopted will come too late for school systems adopting their budgets for the upcoming school year.