Gov. Roy Cooper has urged state lawmakers to give North Carolina elementary schools more time to reduce class sizes, but it’s unclear whether he will sign the class-size fix bill approved Tuesday by legislators.
The bill would phase in class-size changes in kindergarten through third grade over the next four years instead of putting them into effect this fall. The bill would also increase funding for pre-kindergarten to eliminate the state’s waiting list for the program over the next four years.
But House Bill 90 also includes unrelated provisions that would change the composition of the State Board of Elections and would take away Cooper’s control of a $58 million fund tied to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Cooper, a Democrat, has accused Republican lawmakers of “political shenanigans” and “partisan hypocrisy” for not having a standalone bill on the class-size issue.
Republican legislators urged their Democratic colleagues to put aside their concerns about the other issues to get the education changes adopted.
“This is an important day for early childhood education, for our elementary students in this state and their families and their future,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican who helped negotiate the compromise with Senate Republicans. “Vote for their future, the future of our children.”
Tuesday’s vote was 104-12, and several Democrats said they were only voting for the bill to help school districts who argued they can’t meet the class-size reductions this year. Democrats made similar statements when the Senate voted 37-5 on Friday for the bill.
“What is unpalatable, unnecessary but unfortunately not unpredictable is that the good things that can be accomplished for pre-K and for K-3 education are twisted into a conference report with two unrelated issues that are intended to turn our vote for a potential cure for a single significant problem into a bitter pill that we must decide whether we and the people we represent can swallow,” said Rep. Gale Adcock, a Cary Democrat who voted for the bill.
School districts have been clamoring for state lawmakers to delay changes that would require them to lower average K-3 class sizes from 20 students per room this school year to roughly 17 students starting in July. School officials said they didn’t have the thousands of extra classrooms needed and might have to fire art, music and physical education teachers to help come up with the money to hire additional K-3 teachers.
Under the deal announced Thursday by Republican legislative leaders, class sizes in kindergarten through third grade will remain unchanged for the 2018-19 school year before being gradually lowered to the new averages for the 2021-22 school year.
The bill also provides $61.4 million a year for school districts to pay for arts and PE teachers.
House Bill 90 also makes changes to the state elections board. The changes are the response to Republicans’ recent loss in the state Supreme Court in a ruling that said their earlier attempt to reshape the board was unconstitutional. In the latest iteration, the elections board would have nine members, including one member not affiliated with a political party.
The bill would also take $58 million that energy companies building a pipeline through Eastern North Carolina are expected to give state government as part of a deal Cooper negotiated, and distribute it to school districts in eight counties the pipeline would run through. Cooper calls it a mitigation fund to offset environmental effects of the pipeline, but Republicans repeatedly called it a “slush fund.”
Several Democrats complained that the bill doesn’t include money to help school districts pay for all the new construction that will be needed to reduce class sizes. Legislation that would put a $1.9 billion statewide school construction bond referendum on the ballot was introduced last year but didn’t make it out of legislative committees.
Several Republicans, including Rep. Kevin Corbin of Macon County, said they can work on addressing the capital needs later. In the meantime, he urged legislators to consider what would happen if the class size fix isn’t passed.
“If you object to part of this bill, I would suggest that you voice that, voice that to your local media in whatever way that you choose,” Corbin said. “But vote for the bill because your school system will be better off because of it.”