Republican senators recommended Wednesday to end caps on the number of students in North Carolina's public school classrooms for the earliest grades, partially backing off mandates over the last decade to improve student-teacher ratios.
The Senate Education Committee endorsed a bill to eliminate a requirement that class sizes in kindergarten through third grade be directly linked to what school districts receive from the state to hire teachers. A district would have flexibility to spend the money as it sees fits to maximize student achievement.
Local superintendents and principals are going to be judged based on student performance, so they should be given the leeway to shift teacher funds received from the state to things such as computers, staff training or education materials, said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, one of the bill's primary sponsors.
Districts also could use teacher funds to dramatically lower class sizes in some grades at some schools, he said, such as to give extra help to at-risk students.
"This bill does not do anything to raise the class size," Tillman told the committee. "In fact, it gives (local leaders) the flexibility to put your personnel if you choose to do so where you most need it." If superintendents are going to be graded on student test scores, he added, "let's put it in their hands."
The Department of Public Instruction distributes money earmarked for classroom teachers to the 115 local school districts on a per-student basis. Districts this school year received money for one teacher for every 18 kindergarten students and for 17 students in grades 1-3, with the ratio growing in higher grades.
School districts on average must have no more than 21 students K-3 classrooms, with no individual class exceeding 24 students.
Two years ago, the Republican-led legislature gave districts flexibility to use teacher allotments for grades 4-12 as they saw fit to soften the blow of public school cuts. Now Tillman and others want to give that same flexibility to K-3 teacher funds.
There's been a concerted effort in state government to reduce class sizes in K-3 dating back to Democratic Gov. Mike Easley. The education lottery passed in 2005 required a portion of ticket profits to be earmarked toward hiring teachers in the early grades.
The legislature set aside additional funds to reduce early-grade class size when it was under both Democratic and Republican control. In 2011, Republican lawmakers wrote in the state budget it was their intent to ultimately improve the ratio to 1-to-15.
The North Carolina School Boards Association and North Carolina Association of School Administrators backed the change, saying they've wanted the flexibility years ago to allow for smaller class sizes on core topics like math and reading while making other classes larger, spokeswoman Leanne Winner said.
Brian Lewis, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators, urged Tillman unsuccessfully to turn the bill into a pilot program. Classrooms statewide have already suffered through hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts over the past five years, he said, and the bill would provide the opportunity for districts to make even more.
Gov. Pat McCrory's budget would reduce spending for the equivalent of 3,200 teacher assistants. Money would be shifted to hire 1,800 additional teachers over two years.
"We are cutting more resources and allowing school districts to cut more resources from the classroom," Bryant said.
The bill will require local school districts to report how they spent state allotments so parents and others can evaluate whether their local education leaders have been prudent with those funds, Tillman said. Schools will soon receive A-to-F grades on student performance.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, suggested that language be added to the bill to remove the flexibility for poorly-performing districts. Bryant, who represents some low-wealth areas, said funding flexibility doesn't matter when overall funding isn't enough.
The bill, Bryant said, will "not work well for many of us who have continually and persistently less in terms of dollars and resources."