Shiver on HB 13: Barefoot Takes Superintendents to School

Shiver on HB 13: Barefoot Takes Superintendents to School

By Mark Shiver

Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake) has called out some local school districts for not responding to a simple request, and said some administrators were politicizing the issue of class sizes. Barefoot said, “The lack of transparency and accountability in our school system is completely unacceptable.”

Barefoot, co-chairman of the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee, presented an amendment to House Bill 13 (HB 13), Class Size Requirement Changes” at the committee’s meeting Monday night. He explained what had been going on over the past few months as he worked on the bill.

HB13 passed the NC House unanimously. It gives local school districts a measure of flexibility in class sizes in grades K-3. In last year’s short session, the General Assembly passed a measure reducing class sizes in those grades.

School districts have been wailing that they are going to have to fire art, music, PE and world language teachers if the Senate does not either pass HB 13, or give them more money to pay for the reduced class sizes.

School administrators asked for years for more flexibility in how they can spend the state appropriations they receive. That flexibility was given to them to a great degree, and may have led to the existing problem.

Prior to introducing his amendment to the committee, Barefoot made a few remarks. “Aside from teacher pay, the number one funding priority for the Senate and this legislature in many cases has been lowering class sizes in the early grades,” he said. “That is based on research showing that it leads to improved academic outcomes, and it’s based on achieving our goal of ensuring that our students can read by the time they complete the third grade.”

Barefoot then pointed out that lower class size requirements for K-3 classrooms have been on the books for years, and the General Assembly has appropriated tens of millions of dollars to fund them. He said, “In fact, since fiscal year 2014-15, we have sent a total of $152 million to local school districts too lower class size. And every year school districts are guaranteed about $70 million in recurring dollars for that purpose.”

He also said, “So imagine our surprise when we realized that in many cases these dollars have been spent on something else. Now we understand the current law has some flexibility. In fact, this General Assembly gave school districts most of the flexibility they currently have.”

It is no secret that school leaders are constantly asking for more taxpayer money. Whether it’s teacher pay, teacher assistants or now using the threat of firing teachers to try to leverage more tax money from lawmakers, the education establishment has been likened to a giant “black hole” that sucks in billions of dollars, with little if any accountability.

Barefoot expressed alarm at the resistance he encountered to his efforts to obtain clarity and accountability from some school district superintendents.

“We acknowledge that the current law will reduce some of that flexibility,” he said. “That’s why, when some superintendents began to claim that they would have to fire special subject teachers like art and PE, we began to ask them some very simple questions. And frankly, the response we got back was disturbing.”

Apparently, some school districts either could not or would not answer where they are spending the extra class-size reduction money, how many art, music or PE teachers they are paying with that money, or what is the number of “enhancement” teachers they employ.

Barefoot said, “And those [school districts] that were straightforward admitted that they were not spending the extra money we gave them to reduce class sizes where it was intended.”

Continuing, Barefoot added, “The lack of transparency and accountability in our school system is completely unacceptable. And it has been the number one impediment to reaching a solution quickly on this issue. And it has been made far worse by the political gamesmanship and tactics of some superintendents, who ”“ even as they can’t or won’t give us the answers to very simple questions that will lead to a solution to this problem ”“ are sending out pink slips or the threat of it to their employees, and telling their school boards, county commissioners and newspapers that they are going to have to fire hundreds of teachers or teachers’ assistants.”

Barefoot said, “Despite these tactics, we’ve been working for months on a way to solve this problem.”

The staff of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger released a statement just prior to the committee meeting describing the amendment. The statement said the amendment would phase in implementation of class-size reductions over the next two school years by:

  • Requiring local school districts to achieve a district-wide average class size of 20 students in grades K-3 and a single class maximum of 23 students in the 2017-18 school year; and
  • Requiring local school districts to achieve a district-wide average class size in grades K-3 that is equal to the teacher-to-student ratio currently in law and being funded by the state (either 18, 16 or 17 students, depending on the grade level) and a single class maximum of three above that number in the 2018-19 school year.

The phase-in is supported by authors of the original House bill and the N.C. Association of School Administrators.

Barefoot told the committee that the amendment would aid in accountability measures to make sure that the money intended to be spent on class-size reduction was spent on class-size reduction. It includes language that requires school superintendents to provide reports on class sizes, number of classrooms and special subject area teachers such as art and PE. The reports would also need to include the source of funding.

The state superintendent of public instruction would be authorized to conduct periodic audits on these matters of class size. Also, the amended bill requires superintendents affirm that their reports are true and accurate under threat of penalties for making inaccurate statements.

The amended bill is supported by the NC Association of School Administrators, according to its executive director, Katherine Joyce.

Joyce told the committee, “We think the proposal that is before you is a good compromise. It provides a reasonable timeline for reducing class sizes 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 the world languages in year two, when we go to that further reduction in class size, will be very helpful and very much appreciated. This is a proposal we are proud to support.”

While the bill makes no mention of a “pledge of support,” Barefoot made the pledge during the meeting.

NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson issued a statement about the amended bill: “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. 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.”

HB 13 as amended on passed in the committee by voice vote and was referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

This article on HB 13 originally appeared at Capitol Connection.

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