“The gap is closing,” says Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee. “There are folks that are working on a reasonable solution with the session coming as quickly as it is next week.”
And while Horn said he doubts lawmakers will strike a deal by the time legislators reconvene next Wednesday, he said state leaders aren’t likely to delay a resolution until the start of the General Assembly’s short session in the spring.
Horn’s comments came after a meeting with local school board members in Charlotte this week, who, like many districts across the state, say a looming legislative mandate to slash class sizes in the early grades would have dramatic implications without additional funding or a reprieve from lawmakers.
“That did not fall on deaf ears,” said Horn. “I clearly understand the timeline and getting a decision made as soon as possible. The (local school districts) are under the gun.”
North Carolina’s class size crisis began as a 2016 legislative order that, starting in 2017, local school boards would begin scaling back the size of K-3 class sizes. The state’s funding formula prescribed no more than an average of 18 students for each teacher. And in first and second grades, it would have allowed for no more than 16 and 17 students, respectively.
Republican budget writers behind the order said smaller classes would enhance instruction for the early grades. But local district chiefs said the loss of flexibility would force school systems to spend millions to create new classroom space and might jeopardize K-3 arts, music and physical education teachers—so-called “specialty” subjects.
Specialty teachers were once funded by a separate allocation, but teaching funding streams were merged in 1995. Districts utilized the teaching allocation to fund both specialty and core subject teachers in the years since, but with last year’s mandate to chop class sizes, district advocates said they would have been forced to lay off specialty educators to clear funding for the new core subject teachers.
Districts warned thousands of jobs were at stake. Local leaders said they might also be forced to increase class sizes in grades 4-12, nix Pre-K programs and plot large-scale student reassignments.
Under intense public pressure, legislators offered a short-term reprieve last year and talked of creating a separate funding allocation for specialty subjects. But local leaders, who will begin serious budget talks for the 2018-2019 fiscal year in the coming months, said all of the feared financial consequences of last year will return without any long-term resolution from lawmakers  soon.
The Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy group in Raleigh, reported last month that House and Senate legislators differed on when they would renew conversations about class size , but Horn, who did not offer any specifics on a proposed deal, indicated this week that the two chambers may soon find some common ground.
Some legislators have suggested K-12 districts misled lawmakers over how their teaching dollars were spent, a charge denied by many public school leaders.
In the meantime, public school advocates renewed their calls this week for legislative action. A grassroots group of advocates  pushing to repeal the class size mandate is planning a rally Saturday in Raleigh.
And the group’s leader, Wake County parent Renee Sekel, blasted legislators this week for not yet resolving the class size crisis.
“The fact that legislators claim that they didn’t intend the consequences of their class size law, but have still refused at every turn to fix this issue, is inexcusable,” said Sekel. “It is wrong for parents to have to beg for their children not to lose critical educational opportunities, while hard-working, committed teachers face losing their jobs, because the General Assembly is careless.”
Jennifer Mangrum is a UNC-Greensboro associate professor and former elementary teacher who helped launch an elementary education program at N.C. State University in 2005. Mangrum, who plans to speak at Saturday’s rally, said legislators must approve additional teaching funding or return flexibility over class sizes to districts.
Mangrum said she believes lawmakers are using the controversy to hobble public school systems and bolster their argument for school choice expansion and privatization.
“Public education is the bulwark of our democracy,” Mangrum added. “We need to fund it. We need to invest in it.”
But Horn said criticism of legislators hasn’t always been fair. He suggested last year that the financial headaches were an “unintended consequence” of a well-meaning directive.
And, this week, the Union County lawmaker reaffirmed he has no intention of forcing districts to eliminate droves of arts, music and P.E. teachers.
“My personal view is that arts, P.E. and music are not enhancement courses; they are as key to a good education as is math or physics or English,” Horn said. “We are required by the state constitution and the courts to provide a sound, basic education. My opinion is that arts, music and P.E. are part of that sound, basic education.”
Horn said that may require a boost in the teacher funding allocation. Or, he pointed out, an ongoing legislative task force  mulling a wholesale revamp of North Carolina’s K-12 funding system may find an alternative.
How the state funds teaching positions will certainly be up for debate on that panel , which Horn co-chairs, although the task force’s eventual plan for school finance reform is not yet clear, he said.
“I don’t think there is any magic bullet that answers everybody’s needs.”
State House and Senate legislators are scheduled to reconvene at noon Wednesday, January 10,, although chamber leadership has yet to offer a schedule for the upcoming session.