Bill would eliminate pre-k waiting list and phase in class size reductions

Proposal provides $222 million more money for schools’ special subject areas like art, music and P.E.

RALEIGH – Republican state lawmakers on Thursday announced a proposal to address concerns over lowering the K through 3 classroom sizes by phasing in the smaller classes and providing more money for schools to hire teachers.  For 2018-2019, schools will not have to make any changes to give time to prepare for the new hires and lower student/teacher ratios.

Smaller class sizes below grade three have shown to improve outcomes in academic performance, leading to law in 2015 requiring that all schools have no more than sixteen to eighteen kids per class in those grades by the 2018-2019 school year. Objections from school districts revealed a problem with the mandate because special subject teachers, like art, music and P.E., were included in the teacher headcount for schools, throwing off the “per child” ratio.  The “specials” teachers and the classroom teachers were combined into one number, and one funding allotment, during the 1990s under Gov. Jim Hunt, when Gov. Roy Cooper was in the state Senate.

“What we did not know is how many program enhancement teachers there were in the state of N.C. That is part of what has created the problem,” said Barefoot. “In the 1990’s there was a classroom teacher allotment and there was a program enhancement allotment. Those allotments were combined giving the appearance that those schools had lower student to teacher ratios, by simply calling all program enhancement teachers, classroom teachers. So then when we were lowering those down, as we went into classrooms, the classes weren’t getting any smaller. That’s when we realized there was a problem.”

Under the new measure, schools will still get the $70 million each year to cover the expense of hiring additional K-3 teachers over the next four years, but a new funding stream for special subject area teachers is added.  Schools will get an additional $60 million for special subject teachers immediately, with more available as data shows what schools need. Lawmakers estimate that over the next four years schools will have $250 million in recurring state dollars for the special subject teachers.

“We made a very simple flexibility rule,” said Barefoot. “Classroom teacher allotment must be spent on classroom teachers, the new program enhancement teacher allotment can be spent on program enhancement teachers, or it can also be spent on classroom teachers.”

Rep. Craig Horn (R- Union) and Sen Chad Barefoot (R-Wake) chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, put together the proposal from a working group of lawmakers and stakeholders and the N.C. Association of School Administrators. The group visited schools across the state and find a solution.

“On behalf of the school superintendents in our membership we are very pleased to support this reasonable timeline for K through 3 class size reductions, and for the funding for vitally important funding in art, music, physical education and world languages,” said Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators. Administrators.  “We especially appreciate that the house and Senate leaders worked closely with us on developing this viable solution.”

When schools began to rearrange to accommodate the reduced class size plan, protests at the N.C. General Assembly were planned by the N.C. Association of Educators, the teacher’s union in N.C. Teachers and others rallied with signs in front of the legislative building. Gov. Roy Cooper weighed in on the issue as recently as Monday in a speech at NCSU during the Emerging Issues Forum, asking businesses to fight Republican effort to lower taxes further in favor of more education spending.

“We need business people in North Carolina to use their political capital on these education issues, and we need to make sure that we have the state revenue to do what we need to do,” he said.

This measure is a technical correction to the appropriation bill passed last year and provides $222 million in statutory appropriation in the base budget to reduce the student-teacher ratio.

“Make no mistake we are determined to lower average class sizes. That is on my priority list… we are just going to stage it out rather than in one fell swoop,” said Horn.

The bill also eliminates the waiting list for state Pre-K instruction for low-income children by providing funding for nearly 3,000 additional slots in the program

We know we have a lot of kids coming to school not prepared to be in school,” said Horn. ”We have committed in this bill to move to a statutory funding of North Carolina Pre-K, and we’ve put enough money in it so that every eligible child can have access to N.C. Pre-K.”

Carrying the message of the N.C. Association of Teachers, Democrats and Cooper have been focused on talking points criticizing the Republican majority for the class size reduction mandate from 2015.  They have repeatedly called for spending more money to support the reduction with all sides saying that kids perform better with a lower teacher/student ratio.

“There’s nothing in here that I see that would prevent Democrats from getting on board, and I’ve paid particular attention to what other groups have been saying. Everyone seems to support some versions of a phase in, “said Barefoot.  “I’ve also listened very carefully to Governor Cooper’s remarks on the issue and seem to remember some the wording out there on his thoughts about phasing in funding, and this bill does that in a very generous way.”

However, some Democrats say they still won’t support the bill because of a provision in it that sends extra money to school districts directly impacted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).  The bill taps Cooper’s $57.8 million mitigation fund announced last week, and distributes it among school districts in the eight counties along the path of the ACP.

The money in the fund comes from Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, owners of the ACP, and its details are outlined in a “Memo of Understanding” (MOU) released by Cooper’s office, in the same press release announcing that final permits have been issued for the pipeline’s construction.

The fund has been criticized since its announcement by some who call it a “quid pro quo,” for the final permits because the governor solely controls the money.  Further, if the pipeline project is cancelled for any reason, including denial of federal, state or local permits, “The Governor of the State of North Carolina shall deliver the proportionate share of the mitigation funds…. to Atlantic within third (30) days,” according to the MOU.

Lee Lilley | LinkedIn

The provision allocating the money to counties bordering the ACP sparked heated debate in the joint appropriations debate Thursday as members grilled Cooper’s new legislative director, Lee Lilley, on the structure and creation of the fund. Legislators focused on Lilley’s background as a lobbyist for Dominion Resources, the holding company for Dominion Energy. Lilley’s answer to many questions posed was that he “couldn’t speak to that.” He also repeatedly characterized the fund as a “voluntary” contribution by the pipeline. Legislators questioned Lilley on why funds would have to be returned if the pipeline did not get its permits. He largely deflected answers to legislators’ specific questions. Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) concluded the back and forth with Lilley by suggesting that the committee would provide written questions to Lilley so that he could provide answers.