Smaller classes sound great. So why are NC parents up in arms about looming change?

Ann Spencer of Combs Elementary School PTA in Raleigh talks with parents as they wait in carpool line Monday. Volunteers ae urging parents to ask state legislators to give school districts flexibility on the new K-3 class sizes going into effect in July.
Ann Spencer of Combs Elementary School PTA in Raleigh talks with parents as they wait in carpool line Monday. Volunteers ae urging parents to ask state legislators to give school districts flexibility on the new K-3 class sizes going into effect in July.

Smaller class sizes are great, PTA volunteer Ann Spencer told parents at Combs Elementary School on Monday, unless they lead to consequences such as losing art and music classrooms.

Spencer and other PTA volunteers at the Raleigh magnet school urged parents to lobby state lawmakers to back off from requiring smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade starting next year. Monday’s effort at Combs is just one example of how PTAs across North Carolina are mobilizing.

“This is not just affecting Wake County,” Spencer said to fellow Combs parents as she walked along the line of more than 300 cars parked around the school. “This is affecting the whole state. We need to fix this for everybody. Please contact your legislators.”

PTA volunteers and other education groups want state lawmakers to act in the January special session to provide relief from the potential negative effects of reducing K-3 class sizes. Advocates don’t want lawmakers to wait until May because they say it will be too late to help the year-round schools that begin the new school year in July.

The Charlotte area has seen less activism on the issue, perhaps because Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been occupied with a superintendent switch, a school bond campaign, a school board election and the launch of a new student assignment plan. CMS also has fewer year-round schools than Wake.

But CMS Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ says officials have been lobbying behind the scenes, speaking to community groups and helping teachers voice concerns about the change. “Other community-based groups may become more active in the weeks ahead,” Russ said.

The state PTA held a webinar Thursday evening on how parents can advocate on the class-size issue.

“We feel like we have to speak out,” said Julie von Haefen, president of the Wake County PTA Council and chairwoman of the state PTA’s advocacy committee. “If we sit and wait around for it to happen, this won’t be good for any of our schools.”

Elementary schools throughout North Carolina are preparing to implement a new requirement that starts in July that drops average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to roughly 17 students. It was at 21 students last year.

The House had been willing to provide relief in October, but Senate Republican leaders balked at the change, saying the smaller class sizes are needed to help younger students learn.

“Giving up now could mean failing to help students receive more personalized instruction and improve their academic performance,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown said in a statement Monday. “Everyone should be able to agree that a system where teachers can focus more of their attention on fewer students should lead to better outcomes in our schools.”

The state mandate doesn’t bring any state money to hire additional teachers.

School districts have warned that they might have to cut art, music and physical education teachers to come up with the money to hire more K-3 teachers. School leaders have also raised concerns about their ability to find space for the thousands of new classrooms needed.

In Wake County, the state’s largest school district, school officials say it would cost $24.6 million to hire 431 classroom teachers to get class sizes down while still keeping art, music and physical education teachers.

CMS has said the district would have to add 353 teachers, at a cost of just over $23 million.

And both districts have elementary schools that are already filled past capacity, which means that creating new K-3 classrooms would require more mobile units, converting classrooms used for art and music, or packing more students into upper-grade classes.

“As a PTA, we’ve been watching our administration continue to prepare for the changes for next year and we’ve realized that there’s no way for them to meet these expectations without really drastically altering the quality of our school,” said Tappan Vickery, advocacy chairwoman of Combs’ PTA.

Several Wake school PTAs have already been actively reaching out to parents on the “Class Size Chaos” issue. Von Haefen said the Apex Elementary School PTA set up a website explaining how the smaller class sizes could hurt the school.

“We hope that with more pressure on lawmakers to take action on the issue that they will,” she said.

Despite the warnings, Brown, the Senate majority leader, said schools can make the smaller class sizes work.

“While we admire and appreciate these parents advocating for their local schools, the law requires school systems to reduce their student to teacher ratios, not to build more classrooms,” Brown said. “Many school districts have the class space to achieve lower student to teacher ratios through class size reductions, but all districts can achieve lower student to teacher ratios through team teaching, combination classes or other innovative and effective approaches.”

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