School Districts Get Money And Time To Reduce K-3 Class Sizes With Strings Attached

Republican leaders of the General Assembly say they have reached a deal to give school districts statewide more time to reduce class sizes for kindergarten through third grades.

The proposal, which still needs approval, also includes more money to keep art, music and physical education teachers in the classroom.

All this is good news for North Carolina's public schools.  

But it comes with some controversial political strings attached.

File photo.
Credit Lisa Worf

The Class Size Deal

Smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third grades were supposed to take effect next year, but the General Assembly appears ready to let school districts phase in the required reductions over four years. At a press conference in Raleigh, Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot of Wake County said there will be no changes in the upcoming school year.

“This will give school administrators ample time to plan and take the necessary steps needed to meet those requirements,” Barefoot said.

By the fall of 2021-22 school year, class sizes will be limited to 18 students in kindergarten, 16 for first grade and 17 for second and third grades. Currently they can have a maximum of 24 students. Legislators say the smaller class sizes will allow for more individualized instruction and give students a better chance of being proficient in reading by the third grade.

North Carolina Superintendent of Education Mark Johnson speaking in Charlotte, February 8, 2018.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE

Many school officials were concerned that without additional funding to hire more K through three teachers, they would have to cut courses like music, PE and art. At a press conference in Charlotte, state Superintendent Mark Johnson said additional funding will help pay the salaries of those teachers.

“These classes are important. These teachers are important,” Johnson said. “Next year the General Assembly will devote an additional $60 million to pay for the teachers across the state for art, music, PE and other enhancements like foreign languages.”

Johnson says the deal legislators worked out also calls for an end to the state’s wait list for Pre-K students.

“This means about 3,000 additional four-year olds in North Carolina will have access to free, high-quality pre-K programming. That will help them come in to kindergarten ready,” Johnson said.

Under the deal, school districts will receive an additional $250 million in state funding by 2022. In a statement, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ officials said that they are glad legislators listened to their concerns and see the deal as positive step. 

The Political Strings Attached

Upon hearing of this deal for the class size fix, Governor Roy Cooper's office released the following statement:

"It's clear that the legislature finally bowed to public pressure on class size and expanding Pre-K, which is positive for our students, but it's unfortunate that it has been lumped in with political shenanigans."

Morning Edition Host Marshall Terry talks through all this with WFAE's Tom Bullock.

MARSHALL TERRY: The elements in this class size fix deal have been long championed by Democratic lawmakers and the governor. So why the reference to shenanigans?

TOM BULLOCK: Because, Marshall, in legislative parlance, this is not a clean bill. Besides the class size fix deal, House Bill 90 includes two other provisions. The first deals with the body charged with running elections and enforcing law in North Carolina. The other focuses on an odd, $57.8 million fund set up by Governor Cooper.

TERRY: This being an election year, let's start with the section on the State Elections Board. What's the back story here?

Bullock: In the past, that board was comprised of five members, with the Governor's party getting the majority. But, just after it was clear Democrat Cooper had defeated Republican Governor Pat McCrory in the 2016 election, the Republican lead General Assembly passed a number of bills to curb the powers of the incoming new Governor. Including a series of measures aimed at either giving Republican appointees a majority on the elections board or creating a panel evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. A court battle ensued. Then, late last month, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the latest iteration of this to be unconstitutional. A win for Governor Cooper.

TERRY: So how does this election board fight figure into the class size fix?

Bullock: Because a yet new change to the board is included as a rider in this bill. This version would make the state election board a nine member body comprised of four Democrats, four Republicans and one independent. It would also give the Governor more power over appointments.

But this is not a popular provision in the minds of Cooper or his fellow Democrats. And it sets them up a bit of a political trap since there is no line item gubernatorial veto in North Carolina.

Remember all the members in the General Assembly are up for election this year. So will the Democrats vote against the class size fix because of this unrelated measure? Or vote for it? And as for Governor Cooper will he sign the class size fix and the changes to the election board into law, and likely end his ability to fight this in court or will he veto it and kill the class size fix? Either way it puts Democrats in an interesting bind.  

TERRY: Tom, there's another section of this bill worth discussing. And it has to do with the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline which would pass through eight counties in eastern North Carolina.

Bullock: More specifically a strange $57.8 million fund the Governor set up before the state gave permits for the project. That money would be paid by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, who would own and operate the natural gas pipeline.

Marshall, here's where things get odd.

In North Carolina the General Assembly has the power of the budget purse strings. But under this arrangement all that money would be put into an escrow account designated by a so-far unnamed third party.

And only the Governor would be allowed to decide where that money would be spent.

Cooper says it will be used to mitigate any environmental damage caused by the project, as a possible source to promote renewable energy or to promote economic development in the counties through which the pipeline would pass.

But Republicans are calling it a slush fund. And, at an extremely contentious committee hearing yesterday all but called it a pay for play scheme.

So, included in this class size fix bill is a provision that would require all of the $57.8 million this fund would hold be spent on schools in the eight counties the pipeline would traverse.