Where’s the money for smaller classes?

| December 1, 2017

Editorial by Greensboro New-Record, November 26, 2017.

It’s a great idea: Reduce class sizes in primary grades and make sure every child learns to read.

What could go wrong?

Quite a bit, it turns out.

The state legislature set requirements both for smaller average class sizes in grades K-3 and caps on how large any individual class could be, but it provided no resources to make that happen. Perhaps lawmakers thought there would be no cost. They quickly heard otherwise — so forcefully, in fact, that they delayed enforcement of their provisions from 2016 to this school year, when partial compliance was required.

At their retreat last weekend, Guilford County school board members heard from staff that it cost $8 million to meet this year’s mandate of 20 children per K-3 class, on average, and no more than 24 in any class. The bill will be much higher next year if the legislature keeps its promise to require a sharper class-size reduction in 2018.

The largest expense is for additional teachers. Fewer students in a class means more classes, which must be taught by more teachers.

Then, more classroom space is required — unless two classes are combined in a single room and assigned two teachers.

Schools can save money if they eliminate enrichment classes and teachers, or let classes in higher grades grow larger, which would allow them to move teachers from upper grades to lower ones. The legislature put no restrictions on that. But robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t a fair or effective strategy, although it may be a necessary one given insufficient resources.

It puts the county, and county taxpayers, in an unwanted position. Funding for public schools is the state’s responsibility. So, when the legislature enacts a directive that costs a lot of money to carry out, the legislature should be legally obligated to pay for it. If it refuses, as it has, it leaves the local school district in the lurch. It must find the money somewhere, shifting it from other needs. Or else county taxpayers could be asked to pay more in local taxes to fill in the gap. After all, their local taxes would support their children’s education.

The legislature actually likes pushing more funding burdens down to local governments. Then it can take credit for enacting statewide tax cuts, while its budget decisions force counties to raise their tax levies. Guilford County has seen enough revenue growth to increase public school allocations without raising property tax rates in recent years — so far — but many other counties haven’t been as fortunate. This class-size mandate, however, won’t be easy for Guilford County to meet with current revenues.

Finding funds isn’t the only problem created by the class-size order. Compliance is difficult. If a class has its absolute maximum of 24 students, it only takes one child to transfer in to a school to push it out of compliance. Often, classes have to be rearranged in mid-year, which can be an unsettling experience for all students.

As an abstract idea, holding classes in primary grades to fewer than 20 students is a winner. In practice, it’s less than ideal if the classroom teacher loses a teaching assistant, if there’s less time for music or art instruction or if two classes have to be combined and a room designed for 25 children ends up with 38 students and two teachers, producing a crowded and chaotic environment.

And pity the poor middle school teacher who has classes of 30 or more students by herself because more resources have to be shifted from her school to elementary schools.

The solution to this dilemma is simple: The legislature should fund its mandate. With more than $1 billion stashed in reserves, the state can afford to put money behind its policy. In fact, it has an obligation.


Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

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  1. charles parker says:

    Let’s see if I’ve got this correctly….NC mandates smaller class sizes. School districts now have to increase local property taxes to pay for this unfunded mandate…Congress will likely have a new tax bill. Oh, coincidentely, the bill eliminates the local tax deduction…Nothing like our elected officials looking out for our best interests……