Will lawmakers allow critical cuts in N.C. classrooms?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ inaugural Teacher Talks event at the McGlohon Theater. Modelled after TED Talks, it was an evening of great food, incredible musical performances by CMS students, and six inspiring talks by homegrown Charlotte teachers. The final speaker of the evening was my friend and current CMS Teacher of the Year Jordan Todd.

Jordan loves to talk about the importance of taking care of not just our students’ heads but also their hearts. She related her experience working with a student who was homeless and discovered art in elementary school as a way of expressing her feelings about the successes and challenges in her life. Through her talent for sculpture, this student ended up winning a national competition and getting into a specialized high school – the first among her eleven siblings to make it to ninth grade. Art education changed the trajectory of her life. Imagine the difference if she had missed out on that opportunity.

Last year’s North Carolina state budget legislation included a mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. Despite the obvious costs associated with this move, the General Assembly provided no additional funding to cover the teaching positions or construction of classrooms required to meet the new smaller class sizes. This lack of foresight left school districts on their own to either come up with local funds to hire additional teachers or make cuts in other areas to free up money. Unfortunately, positions that are often on the chopping block during lean times are art, music, and physical education, even though these classes are so critical to helping our children develop healthy bodies and creative minds.

Faced with public outcry over the prospective loss of teaching jobs and vital program offerings for children, some state legislators acknowledged their shortsightedness. In mid-February, the House unanimously passed HB13, which gives districts more flexibility on class sizes, mitigating the damage that would otherwise be caused by unfunded class-size reductions. The legislation then went to the Senate. It has languished there ever since.

Speculation varies widely on the reason the Senate has failed to act on HB13. Senate Education Committee Chair Chad Barefoot says he needs time to investigate how school districts have spent state funds that were intended to reduce class sizes. However, some believe Senate leadership simply wants to use this issue as a bargaining chip on the budget. Others feel the Senate is concerned that their support for HB13 will be interpreted as voting for larger class sizes – despite the fact that most educators see it as a necessary fix.

Whatever the cause for the Senate’s lack of urgency on this issue, what’s not up for debate is the potentially disastrous impact on N.C. teachers and students if the Senate does not pass HB13.

This time of year is critical for school systems as they create budgets for next school year and make decisions about staffing. Urban school districts often receive generous funding from local sources and are better positioned to weather unexpected storms and maintain programs that are essential to our students’ health and well being. Many of North Carolina rural school districts are not so fortunate. For example, schools in Senate leader Phil Berger’s Rockingham County get only 17 percent of their funding from the county, meaning the consequences of Senate inaction will likely be higher in that part of the state. Other rural counties receive even less. Statewide, estimates are that up to 4,500 teaching jobs are in jeopardy, many of them in counties where employment prospects are few and far between.

Time is running out for the Senate to take action on the bill and avoid widespread teacher layoffs and the slashing of classes that children like Jordan Todd’s student desperately need. Let’s hope our legislators can put our teachers and students’ welfare ahead of politics and pass HB13 before it’s too late.

Parmenter is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy. He was CMS 2016 Teacher of the Year for the South Learning Community.