David Curtis

State Sen. David Curtis (left) during a recent visit to Lincoln County from state superintendent Mark Johnson. 

Legislation passed last year to reduce class sizes across the state has come under fire with local school districts now scrambling to come up with the money in next year’s budget to hire more teachers.

House Bill 13, which was the subject of months of deliberation within the Senate Education Committee, required schools to begin phasing in the reduction of kindergarten, first, second and third grade class sizes at the beginning of the current school year. More dramatic reductions are scheduled for the upcoming 2018-19 school year, however, with the average K-3 class size requirement dropping from 20 to 17 students.

“As soon as the Republicans took over in 2011-12 they did research on exactly what makes a child successful in education,” state Sen. David Curtis, whose district includes Lincoln County, told the Times-News when the legislation passed in May. “Basically, the data seemed to indicate pretty strongly that smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade has a huge impact on teaching children to read. The data also showed that if they cannot read proficiently by the time they reach the fourth grade then they have a huge problem being successful in the next eight grades.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democrats are pushing their Republican colleagues to act quickly on the matter, with local school districts preparing their budgets for the next fiscal year. Parents and teachers are applying the pressure as well, organizing a rally in Raleigh last weekend despite the subfreezing temperatures.

“I believe smaller class size can be a good thing, but you have to pay for it,” Cooper said last week. “This is an artificial class size change — one that shrinks classes on paper, but in reality hurts students and teachers … 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.”

Curtis, a Denver Republican who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee, told the Times-News that school districts have been receiving funding to help reduce class sizes for years, but that money was spent on specialty teachers for art, music and physical education classes instead.

“Basically, my understanding of the situation is that, back in the day, we had one pot of money for regular teachers and another pot of money for the specialty teachers,” Curtis said. “That money was then combined and put back into one pot of money. When we started mandating reduced class sizes and funding $70 million each year to get down to that, the school systems used that money to pay their art and P.E. teachers instead of reducing class sizes. Then, when we told them to quit ignoring what we were asking them to do and actually reduce their class sizes, they hit the panic button because they couldn’t do it without laying off their art and P.E. teachers. So, essentially, they want us to pay them a second time to reduce class sizes and we’re trying to figure out what to do because we certainly don’t want art and P.E. teachers laid off, but we really struggle with funding the same thing a second time because we’re not sure if that’s a good use of taxpayer money.”

House Republicans have suggested providing relief by delaying the class size reductions, but their colleagues in the Senate haven’t been as open to that idea. Curtis, however, told the Times-News that some sort of delay in implementation is almost inevitable at this point.

“I think I know where the legislature wants to end up, but there’s probably some flexibility as far as when we get there,” Curtis said. “Maybe delaying these reductions by some period of time would be appropriate and that seems to be how things are moving. It seems likely to me that we will delay the implementation by a year or two and also create a seperate pot of money earmarked for these specialty teachers that isn’t allowed to be spent on anything else.”

The legislature opened its short session on Wednesday, but a resolution of this matter hasn’t come about yet. Curtis said that a solution needs to be introduced by March or April to give the school district’s enough time to reflect any changes in their budgets.

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