Editor’s note: Gov. Roy Cooper urged legislative Republicans on Jan. 5 at Cotswold Elementary to provide funding for smaller class sizes when they convene this week. Here are his remarks from that visit.
I’m glad to be here today at Cotswold Elementary.
I’ve enjoyed meeting with students, teachers, administrators and support staff who have just gotten back from winter break.
They’re energized and ready to take on the second half of the school year. But like many other schools across North Carolina, Cotswold is also working to solve a serious problem caused by an unfunded mandate from the state legislature.
In 2016, the General Assembly first passed a requirement for smaller class size for grades K-3 in our public schools.
Sounds like a good idea, right? It is on paper, but in reality, without the money to do it, it’s a nightmare. The legislature either needs to phase this law in or provide funding for it.
You see, schools like Cotswold are in a bind. Several of their K-3 classes now have more students than this new law allows.
But because the General Assembly failed to include funding to meet this requirement, schools are having to take steps that they know will hurt.
They weren’t given the money to hire additional teachers and create space for additional classrooms, so they’re having to cut elsewhere.
The decisions schools like Cotswold will have to make in the coming months will put education quality at risk.
What are those alternatives? Cutting computer science, arts, music and physical education classes, and increasing class sizes in grades 4 and above.
I recently visited Washington Elementary School in Raleigh, where I went into a class where students were learning computer science skills – lessons that are critical to preparing young people to succeed in 21st century jobs.
The school principal told me that the class would likely have to be eliminated if this new law is not phased in or funded.
Few schools will have the space to meet the requirements of the new law at the beginning of the next school year, so more classes will have to be held in alternative spaces like trailers and cafeterias instead of rooms built for learning.
I recently heard from administrators at one middle school about another bad option.
A teacher from one of their three eighth-grade classes retired. Normally, the school would have hired a replacement for this teacher. But because of the new law, the district made the tough decision not to fill that slot. Instead, they moved the position to K -3 where the class size change is required.
So instead of three eighth grade classes, that middle school now has to make do with two classes of about 35 students each.
It’s like a balloon – you can squeeze one end to make it smaller, but the other end just gets bigger.
The students in those classes will get less individual attention, and their teachers will be strained even further.
I believe smaller class size can be a good thing, but you have to pay for it. This is an artificial class size change – one that shrinks classes on paper but in reality hurts students and teachers.
Squeezing public schools even further by forcing artificial deadlines could hurt student learning and leave some children and teachers in overcrowded classrooms.
The legislature itself acknowledged this when phasing in the class size requirement for one year until they could fund it. They never did. Now the deadline is coming again.
So as the General Assembly prepares to head into a special session next week, I’m asking legislative leaders: If smaller class size is a priority, fund it. If the money isn’t appropriated, then phase this new law in.
I know that a number of members of our General Assembly – both Democratic and Republican – agree that this isn’t the right way to reduce class size.
We need to take the pressure off school districts now so they can do their jobs. Let’s help them phase into new class size requirements over time so that students and teachers don’t suffer. Let’s make sure they get the funding to do this.
We should be helping schools hire highly qualified teachers instead of forcing them to resort to measures that will set our students back.
North Carolinians from all walks of life rely on our public schools to get a good education that sets them on the path toward success.
It’s time to put them first.