A bill approved by a Senate committee Monday evening would phase-in the reductions for the maximum class sizes in kindergarten through third grades currently scheduled for next fall. Now, those caps won't have to be met until fall 2018.
Education groups, teachers and parents were worried that without change, districts would have to locate money elsewhere to meet lower class sizes by eliminating art, music and physical education instructors or increasing class sizes in other grades.
"We've been working on this issue for months, and I am pleased we've arrived at a solution that gives administrators, teachers, parents and students certainty about what will happen next school year, while making sure the taxpayers are getting the smaller class sizes they've paid for," said Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake.
The measure also would require more reporting by local superintendents about how they're using money designated specifically to lower class sizes. That part of the bill comes as state senators said they had trouble getting information they asked for from school leaders.
"The lack of transparency and accountability in our school system is completely unacceptable and it's been the number one impediment to reaching a solution on this issue," Barefoot said during Monday's committee meeting.
He told the committee that the current K-3 class size requirements have been on the books for years. He said since 2014, local school districts across the state have received a total of $152 million to lower class sizes and every year they're guaranteed about $70 million in recurring dollars.
"Imagine our surprise when we realized in many cases that these dollars have been spent on something else," Barefoot said.
He said many district leaders either could not or would not account for where that money went or how many art, music or physical education teachers they have.
"I think for the Senate to say the districts are mishandling their money, go to your school districts and see what's going on; our school districts are starving," said Mark Jewell, President of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
"Clearly this compromise solves the problem for one year but it doesn't address the problem," Jewell said. "The North Carolina General Assembly is chronically underfunding North Carolina public schools. We're 43rd in the nation right now. We deserve a well-rounded education."
Lawmakers also said that by having superintendents report how they're using money to lower class sizes, and how many teachers they have for subjects like art, music and physical education, that will give them a better idea for budgeting for that in the future.
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"We have a promise of resources guaranteed in the following year's budget but that's it," said Jewell, "no actual plan, no actual dollar amount given to where our art, music, PE teachers are going to be protected down the road."
That promise, and this compromise however, is proving to be enough for some.
"Provides a reasonable timeline for further reducing class size in grades K-3 and in working on this issue the extra funding that has been pledged to support enhancement teachers in art music and PE and world languages in year two, when we go to that further reduction in class size, will be very helpful and much appreciated," said Katherine Joyce, Executive Director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators.
"I commend the NC House, NC Senate, and the superintendents across North Carolina on working for a positive compromise that has our students as their shared top priority," said NC Superintendent Mark Johnson of the Department of Public Instruction. "Now we all must confront that this debate highlights the need for greater transparency and modern data systems that accurately count and report teachers and class size. Together we can stop debating the facts and instead focus on solutions."
The bill still has to clear another committee before heading back to the General Assembly floor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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