Lawmakers must make class-size financing a priority


Sunday, January 7, 2018

The "short" session of the N.C. General Assembly is expected to begin on Wednesday. The hope is that lawmakers can make it a truly short session in duration, achieved by tackling only the most pending legislative objectives.

There are several issues, from infrastructure and transportation needs to economic development in rural areas, that merit the criteria of pressing business this Legislature should be addressing. Heading that list, however, is how lawmakers can resolve the growing tempest of concern surrounding the mandate for achieving smaller class sizes in the state's elementary schools. Considering the larger implications for our school children, lawmakers who supported the mandate should be willing and motivated to ensure that laws aimed at improving early childhood education also provide the financial support the mandate requires — without having to cut other areas of instruction.

That issue came up last week when area lawmakers were asked by The Daily Advance to offer their priorities for business that is likely to come up during the session. Among their lists were several important issues affecting area residents. In some cases, legislators representing both parties voiced similar views about priorities for the session.

For instance, both state Rep. Bob Steinburg, D- Chowan, and Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, were intent on seeking reform or taking actions to improve the security of the state prison system. The issue is especially close to local lawmakers whose districts were affected by the deaths of five prison workers resulting from inmate violence last year.

In addition, Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, brought up the latest N.C. Rate Bureau's projected average 18.7 percent home insurance rate hike. Whether that issue gets any attention at the session is unknown, but it's certainly something area residents will be following. Also, Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, cited concerns about the contamination of state waters after elevated levels of toxic chemicals were found in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. With the Albemarle’s inland sounds and rivers, residents can see the implications here.   

Local legislators also weighed in on judicial redistricting, an effort similar to others championed by many Republicans to alter how the state's judges are elected. Local lawmakers are anticipating the issue coming up, although none cited it as a priority. And for good reason: It shouldn't be. The issue is driven primarily by a partisan objective, supported by some, though not all Republican leaders, seeking reforms that would enable election of more conservatives to the state judiciary.

It's a highly-partisan, divisive issue that we believe should die a quiet legislative death. But short of that, it certainly is not a matter lawmakers need to debate during a session set aside for matters more crucial to the interests of North Carolina's residents.

On the other hand, the elementary school class size mandate needs immediate attention. Our local legislators agree about the importance of getting a handle on the issue and helping local school districts manage the changes the Legislature imposed when it passed the mandate in 2016.

According to the action, beginning in 2017, schools would reduce K-3 class sizes, allowing only 18 students to a class, with 16 and 17 students, respectively, in classes for grades 1-2. Republican sponsors of the legislation claimed the reduced teacher-student ratio would create a better learning environment — which it probably would. But what was overlooked — or perhaps intentionally ignored — was the financial impact of reducing class sizes on local districts. The state had not included plans to allot additional funds to hire the extra teachers needed with smaller class sizes or the money to finance new classroom facilities for the additional classes created.

Hence, in order to meet the legislative mandate with existing funding, schools have  been forced to consider eliminating kindergarten programs, raising class sizes in higher grades and instituting massive student reassignments to compensate for adding teachers to lower grades.

The impending crisis and outcry from educators convinced legislators to delay implementation until 2018 as they looked for solutions. Some discussions on a financial fix have occurred, but with schools and counties about to work on budgets and planning for 2018-19, they still have no guidance or answers from the General Assembly.

Considering the immense effect on schools and students, and the pending upheaval closing in on public education, we see this Legislature as having its own mandate — either create a funding mechanism to support the mandate or repeal it; and do one or the other in the short session.