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Fitzsimon: The false and telling choice for public schools

021217Fitzsimon
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Sunday, February 12, 2017

The 2017 General Assembly session is only a few weeks old but there’s already a compelling example of what’s wrong with the way things are being done in Raleigh and why the conventional wisdom about the legislature often misses the real story.

State lawmakers took up legislation Tuesday that would give local school systems more flexibility next fall dealing with a provision stuffed into last year’s budget directing schools to lower class sizes in the early grades.

The provision would lower the maximum number of children allowed in K-3 classes from 24 to between 19 and 21 depending on the grade and would lower the average class size overall.

Smaller classes are a good idea and they are especially important in the early grades—but there was a problem with the plan.

No extra funding was provided, forcing schools to consider cutting art, music, and physical education classes next year to come up with the money to pay for the smaller classes.

That prospect prompted protests from educators and parents across the state.

House Education Chair Rep. Craig Horn said the problem with the class size provision was a misunderstanding, that it was “not as fully thought through with regard to unintended consequences.”

A House committee approved the bill easing the requirement and allowing local schools to have larger classes next year. The bill passed unanimously and seems likely to win approval from the full House and Senate though the Senate refused to take up an identical bill in a special session in December.

Republicans called the legislation backing off on the lower class size mandate a bipartisan resolution to the problems that the original provision created.

That’s one way to look at it. Schools now don’t have to layoff art and music teachers and that’s good. The arts are important.

But smaller classes in the early grades are important too. Why should schools have to choose? They can have both if the General Assembly will simply provide the funding not just the mandate.

It’s not like they can’t find the money. Lawmakers have cut more than $1.4 billion in taxes in the last few years with most of it going to corporations and the wealthy.

It also seems disingenuous for Republicans to claim they were blind-sided by the problems the unfunded mandate would create for schools.

NC Policy Watch’s Billy Ball reports that former legislative fiscal analyst Kris Nordstrom, now with the N.C. Justice Center, told legislative leaders about the problems schools would have with the provision well before they stuck into last year’s budget.

The fix considered Tuesday might have gained bipartisan approval but it doesn’t solve the problems for schools and students who deserve both smaller classes and arts and P.E.

The idea of giving schools more funding instead of just more flexibility did come up during the House committee debate but the bill’s sponsor said the House Education Committee was not the proper venue for that discussion.

That’s an odd way to look at it. It is the House Education Committee after all. Members could have included in the legislation a call for more investments in education.

But legislative leaders are already taking about more tax cuts this year.

That would likely mean that schools will have to make tough choices again about what not to provide.

So don’t be misled—the legislation to ease the mandated class size reductions is not a victory for schools, it merely allows them to rearrange their inadequate resources.

And it’s a reminder, just a few weeks into the new legislative session, that public education is still not the priority of this General Assembly.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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