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Guest Editorial: Who will pay for smaller K-3 public school class sizes?

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It wasn’t the typical Legislative Building protest march.

When hundreds of demonstrators gathered Saturday in frigid weather on the mall outside lawmakers’ offices in Raleigh, they were there to urge legislators to finish the job they started with 2016 education reform legislation. And they were walking a well-worn trail, protesting yet another unfunded mandate.

There’s pretty much universal acclaim for the measure that puts a cap of 17 students on classes from kindergarten through third grade. Smaller class sizes are likely to create generations of better-prepared students who will then advance through the grades with a much stronger educational foundation.

The trouble is, lawmakers didn’t offer school districts a penny to help them comply. And that’s going to cost a bundle. In most cases, it will force already cash-strapped school systems to meet the mandate by cutting in other important places (the era of fluff and easy budget cuts is long gone).

For many school systems, it means trimming other programs to fund the additional teachers they need to meet the mandate. Schools are talking about eliminating or cutting back on arts, physical education and library programs. They may also have to increase class sizes in the higher grades, a move that could undo all the good that will come from smaller classes in the early years.

And there’s the space crunch. Smaller classes mean more classrooms will be needed, and many schools simply don’t have the space. They may need to create it by taking over art and music rooms, and maybe even gymnasiums. The bottom line is that in many ways the smaller-class mandate will cause chaos. That was one of the messages in signs carried Saturday at the Raleigh demonstration: “Stop Class Chaos. Fund Our Public Schools.”

In a press conference last week, Gov. Roy Cooper summed up the dilemma schools face: “We should be helping schools hire highly qualified teachers instead of forcing them to resort to measures that will set our students back,” he said. “Squeezing public schools even further by forcing artificial deadlines could hurt student learning and leave some children and teachers in overcrowded classrooms.”

Ed Dunlap, executive director of the N.C. School Boards Association, joined Cooper at the session and said his group, “believes reducing class size is beneficial but not at the cost of having untrained teachers, reduced Pre-K services, larger class sizes in 4-12, classes in more mobile units and teachers losing their classrooms and having to teach from a cart.”

The governor held his press conference at a Charlotte elementary school, where school system leaders say it will cost the district $23 million to hire 353 more K-3 teachers to comply with the law. The alternative is measures that will degrade the quality of education for other students.

Lawmakers’ ongoing determination to run a lean and efficient government is in many ways laudable. Nobody wants waste in government. But what’s happening in the state’s schools shows us the result of slavish devotion to cost-cutting without even thinking about unintended consequences.

Smaller K-3 classes make a good line in a re-election campaign, but doing it at the expense of the overall quality of education is a disservice to everyone. This is yet another reminder that school funding in North Carolina still hasn’t recovered from the recession that brought deep cuts in education spending a decade ago. Even though our lawmakers have enjoyed record-high revenue surpluses in the past few years, they have refused to direct enough of that money to our schools, leaving us mired in the bottom quarter of the country in per-student spending.

If our elected representatives are serious about remaining competitive, attracting new industries and the people who will work for them, we need to share more of the wealth with our public schools. Lawmakers returned to Raleigh for a brief session this week. We hope school funding is on their agenda.

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