Education

Deal announced in NC class-size fight that put school arts, PE classes at risk

Stone Hensley, 10, a fifth-grader at Sycamore Creek Elementary School, speaks during a rally in Raleigh last week urging the North Carolina Senate to pass House Bill 13. Hensley's mother, Sheila Hensley, stands to the right. School districts around the state have said arts and PE programs are at risk because they lost their flexibility to fund them when state legislators lowered class sizes for kindergarten through third grade. School officials say HB13 would allow them to save arts and PE classes.
Stone Hensley, 10, a fifth-grader at Sycamore Creek Elementary School, speaks during a rally in Raleigh last week urging the North Carolina Senate to pass House Bill 13. Hensley's mother, Sheila Hensley, stands to the right. School districts around the state have said arts and PE programs are at risk because they lost their flexibility to fund them when state legislators lowered class sizes for kindergarten through third grade. School officials say HB13 would allow them to save arts and PE classes. ehyman@newsobserver.com

North Carolina elementary school art, music and physical education programs appear to be safe from deep cuts this year under a compromise announced Monday by Senate leaders.

A new version of House Bill 13 announced by Senate leader Phil Berger would push back extensive class-size reductions in kindergarten through third grade for a year. School districts said the change, which was to go into effect for the 2017-18 school year, would take away their flexibility to fund arts and PE classes.

Under Monday’s deal, class sizes in kindergarten through third grade will be smaller in the coming school year, but not as small as the original plan called for.

In addition, Senate leaders said they’re committed to studying how to fund teachers in subjects like art, music, drama and PE “to ensure a smooth transition to smaller class sizes.” Sen. Chad Barefoot, co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said they’ll have to consider separately funding teachers in those areas.

The revised version of House Bill 13 was approved Monday night by the Senate Education Committee.

“We’ve been working on this issue for months,” Barefoot said. “We are pleased to finally arrive at this solution that we believe gives administrators, teachers, parents and students certainty about what will happen in the next school year while making sure that taxpayers are getting the smaller class sizes that they have paid for.”

 

School officials have been urging state lawmakers to quickly pass HB 13 because they’re building budgets for next school year. Monday’s deal, which has the support of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, comes less than a week after several hundred people rallied on the Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh to demand that the Senate quickly approve House Bill 13.

“We think the proposal that’s before you is a good compromise,” Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, told the Senate Education Committee. “It provides a reasonable timeline for further reducing class sizes in K-3.”

State lawmakers lowered maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grade from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students as part of last year’s budget. School officials say the change removes their flexibility to pay specialists such as art, music, foreign language and physical education teachers out of the state dollars provided for regular classroom teachers.

Many school districts have supported HB 13, which would reduce K-3 class sizes to as few as 22 students. Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill said the district would need $1.8 million more to hire 32 additional teachers if HB 13 passes, compared with $26 million more and 460 extra teachers if the new rules go into effect.

The bill was unanimously passed in the House in February, but it stalled in the Senate, where it was not put on a committee meeting agenda for consideration for two months. During the time the bill was in the Senate Rules Committee, Senate leaders asked school districts to fill out a survey answering how they have been using the state K-3 class size money.

Barefoot accused superintendents of playing “political games” and not providing the information requested, which he said delayed a deal from being reached. He also denied that legislators were aware that the class-size reductions would put teacher jobs at risk.

The new version announced Monday by the Senate would lower maximum K-3 class sizes for this fall to 23 students. In the 2018-19 school year, maximum K-3 class sizes would range from 19 to 21 students. Also in 2018, average K-3 class sizes for districts would drop to between 16 and 18 students, compared to 21 this school year.

Pressure has intensified in recent weeks with school districts, which are working on their 2017-18 budgets, talking about funding the new K-3 teachers by eliminating arts programs. They said they may lay off many specialized teachers who don’t have the needed state certification to teach regular K-3 classes.

Fears escalated last week when Merrill said options in Wake to deal with the class-size change include increasing class sizes for older students, cutting art and music classes, laying off teachers and reassigning students. He said Wake might also have to put as many as 40 students in K-3 classrooms with two teachers to try to comply with the new state requirements.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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