Politics & Government

Unanimous NC House votes to raise class-size cap to avoid cuts to PE, arts classes

Jane Gilewicz, a teacher's assistant at Poe Elementary School in Raleigh, works with Yasemire Brailsford (left) and Lesly Salinas Noyola in a K-1 class in 2014. The N.C. House voted to drop a mandate for smaller elementary school class sizes on Thursday.
Jane Gilewicz, a teacher's assistant at Poe Elementary School in Raleigh, works with Yasemire Brailsford (left) and Lesly Salinas Noyola in a K-1 class in 2014. The N.C. House voted to drop a mandate for smaller elementary school class sizes on Thursday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The N.C. House voted unanimously Thursday morning to soften a class-size reduction that school districts said could force them to cut arts and physical education classes.

Legislators had reduced maximum class sizes starting this fall in kindergarten through third grade. Under the current law, maximum individual K-3 class sizes will drop from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on grade level, and the maximum average class sizes for a school district would be even lower.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who sponsored the bill approved Thursday, said the mandate had “an unintended consequence” because school districts “just couldn’t adjust that quickly to the change that was mandated in the budget.”

Rep. Gale Adcock, a Cary Democrat, said Wake County school officials have told her that the class-size mandate would cost the district about $320 million for additional teachers and classroom construction.

House Bill 13, which now heads to the Senate, would cap individual K-3 class sizes at 22 to 24 students, depending on grade level. Maximum average class sizes would range from 19 to 21 students.

North Carolina doesn’t separately fund specialists such as arts and PE teachers so school districts pay for them out of state dollars for regular classroom teachers. The reduction in maximum class sizes limits the flexibility that districts have to spread money around for special classes.

Although he ultimately voted for the class-size bill, House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson of Knightdale said the legislature should instead provide funding to cover the cost of lowering class sizes.

“The current lose-lose situation exists because legislative Republicans have taken money that should have gone to our schools to other tax giveaways,” he said. “Republicans created a situation where lower class sizes can only come with devastating cuts down the hall.”

McGrady disputed Jackson’s claim about funding. “It is a misstatement to say we are not fully funding the class-size mandate,” he said. “We are fully funding the class-size mandate, we’re just giving (school districts) some of the flexibility they had back.”

McGrady cautioned that legislators aren’t backing down on their intention to lower class sizes. School boards, he said, “would not be acting very smart if they didn’t move incrementally over a short number of years toward hitting the class-size mandate we’ve set forth.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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