This week, after more than two months of delay, the N.C. Senate finally approved a revised version of House Bill 13. The bill gives school districts one year of flexibility in determining class sizes, a necessary measure as smaller K-3 class size mandates called for in last year’s budget but not funded would have forced districts to make drastic changes in staffing. Those changes would likely have meant reductions in arts and physical education – despite the fact that these classes are a critical part of providing students with a well-rounded learning experience.
HB13 does avert the immediate statewide catastrophe of thousands of teacher layoffs and dramatic reductions in arts offerings. Unfortunately, without funding the additional teachers and classrooms needed for smaller K-3 classes, it amounts to little more than a one-year reprieve for our special area courses and for the job prospects of thousands of teachers across the state.
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Sen. Chad Barefoot, Senate Education Committee chair, acknowledged that the General Assembly needs to look at creating a separate allotment for funding special area teachers. But when Sen. Jay Chaudhuri attempted to add a budget intent amendment to HB13 that would have committed in writing to funding for those teachers, Barefoot prevented the amendment from being heard.
HB13 also gives districts “maximum flexibility to use allotted teacher positions to maximize student achievement” in grades 4-12, which could result in moving upper grades’ teachers to early grades, shrinking class sizes in K-3 but increasing them in grade levels above.
Nobody is arguing for larger class sizes, and state lawmakers are correct when they cite research showing improved outcomes for early elementary students in smaller classes. But if you ask any middle school or high school teacher about class sizes, they will tell you how difficult it already is to teach a class with nearly 40 students, to manage behaviors, to communicate regularly with parents and provide individualized instruction with timely and detailed feedback for every student. Swelling already-bursting classes in order to meet class size mandates for K-3 is not an ideal solution for anyone.
The best case scenario would be for the General Assembly to adequately fund smaller class sizes – both teaching positions and classrooms – and for them to do so with a timeframe that allows schools to make plans in advance of the following school year. Next year the General Assembly is in its short session, which means that any legislative action around this issue would not even begin until May 1. That’s a time of year when school districts are creating budgets for the following school year and making decisions about staffing.
A far worse but perhaps more likely scenario is that one year from now we’ll be having exactly the same debate, with 115 school districts facing well-intentioned but unfunded class size mandates and being forced to make hard decisions that negatively affect thousands of teachers’ lives as well as the quality and breadth of education we provide students.
We can do better than forcing teachers to wonder each year whether or not they are going to have a job. We can do better than entertaining the notion of denying students access to courses which nurture creativity and healthy life choices. Let’s hope that the General Assembly will do the right thing and provide our school districts with the resources they need to do their crucial work.
Parmenter is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy.