What About the Budget?
May 9, 2013
Members of North Carolina's Senate will soon release their budget. One area to pay close attention to is whether the funding their budget will provide to public education will help school districts sustain or reduce class sizes.
Class size matters to parents, students and teachers, and to the process of teaching and learning. Especially for the youngest students, we should ensure that teachers have low class sizes so that they can do their very best job of helping children build a strong academic foundation and a love of learning. When I was a teacher, my class sizes determined how much individual attention I could give each student.
North Carolina has a tradition of addressing class sizes in state legislation, but flexibility has been given to school districts over the years. The School-Based Management and Accountability Program Act of 1995 gave the State Board of Education the authority to grant waivers of state laws pertaining to class size if they were included as a part of a school improvement plan. To date, all school districts have been granted waivers.
When the economic downturn began in 2009, local district leaders were struggling to locate the dollars that they were required to return to the state to meet the discretionary reduction, also called the local education agency (LEA) adjustment. As a temporary fix, class size flexibility was allowed for grades four through 12 beginning in 2009, however, class size limits were protected for kindergarten through third grade. This flexibility was not intended to become permanent. In fact, the General Assembly set a goal to reduce class size requirements.
While most local school district leaders value low class sizes for students and teachers, when they are forced to find money to meet their discretionary reduction, especially when resources are already so limited, tough choices are made. In some districts, teachers and teacher assistants lose their jobs and class sizes increase, no matter how much 'flexibility' is given.
Many people have worked hard to protect class size limits, especially for kindergarten through third grade. In some school districts, this effort has opened the door to larger class sizes in grades four through 12th grade because school districts had no other choice than to increase class size in those grades.
Fast forward to the current session of the General Assembly. The discretionary reduction scheduled for next school year is $376,385,771 (or $249 for every student in public schools). Without addressing this reduction, school districts will have very difficult choices to make about class sizes.
In North Carolina, teaching positions are allotted based on the number of students in a school district. These teacher allotments are directly linked to class size limits and guidelines.
Currently, each school district receives funding for teachers based on the following teacher:student ratios:
- 1:18 in Kindergarten;
- 1:17 in grades 1-3;
- 1:22 in grades 4-6;
- 1:21 in grades 7-8;
- 1:24.5 in grade 9; and
- 1:26.64 in grades 10-12.
Maximum class sizes range higher than the allotment figures to reflect the reality of how students are distributed across schools.
The conversation in North Carolina should not be about enlarging classes to save money, but about keeping the K-3 class size limits as they are and restoring the very reasonable class size limits that used to be enforced for grades 4-12. I hope that the budget will provide sufficient dollars for North Carolina public school districts to support the progress our schools are making.
June St. Clair Atkinson