An impending class size crisis and growing inequities between rich and poor districts are the most important issues facing North Carolina public schools in 2018, according to an annual list released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Public School Forum of N.C.
The list—prepared by the Raleigh-based policy and research outfit—arrives with state legislators still negotiating the terms of a potential respite for North Carolina’s 115 school districts, brought on by a 2016 order to cut K-3 class sizes that lacks sufficient funding to make it happen, critics say.
“The class size mandate is affecting every single school in North Carolina,” says Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum. “The ripple effect—up to ballooning classes in grades 4-12, to the risk of losing classes in upper grades, to the very real fact that there’s no way our schools can meet this mandate in seven months and also keep our arts and P.E. teachers and come up with several hundred classrooms that don’t exist today— it is a self-inflicted crisis.”
Rep. Craig Horn, the Union County Republican who co-chairs the House K-12 budget committee, said again Wednesday that a fix is coming for the class size crisis, adding no lawmakers want to eliminate enhancement teachers.
But House lawmakers have been considerably more willing to take up a legislative fix  in the coming days, Policy Watch has reported, while Senate leadership seems unlikely to act until March at the earliest .
Wednesday’s list also comes weeks after a Forum report  pointed to a “chronic and growing” school spending gap in the state’s wealthy and low-income school districts. According to that report, the ten highest spending counties paid out on average more than $3,100 per student, compared to just $739 in the ten lowest-spending counties.
And that gap has grown in 18 of the last 20 years in North Carolina, its authors note.
The school spending gaps are a reflection of the size of local district tax bases, as well as inadequate base funding from state coffers, critics say.
The equity issue has been a frequent talking point as state lawmakers continue their work on an overhaul of North Carolina’s school funding allocation system . However, legislators have been frequently criticized for stating that a joint task force will not take up the adequacy of state funding , focusing instead on its method of delivery, a system of various funding formulas for K-12 needs that lawmakers have deemed overly complicated.
“You cannot separate them, in our opinion,” Poston added Wednesday. “And worst, you will miss a huge opportunity. Don’t lose sight of the funding gaps. Our poor counties, they are seeing educational experiences that are far different than what students are seeing in a Wake County, a Guilford County, a Mecklenburg County.”
Meanwhile, school district leaders also point to major infrastructure needs in the state’s poorest counties, tallying more than $8 billion in construction and renovation costs in aging facilities, according to a 2016 state estimate .
Bipartisan House and Senate bills  would call for a $1.9 billion statewide referendum on school construction bonds, although the issue seemingly hasn’t gained enough traction in the Senate to move forward.
One bond-backer, Sen. Valerie Foushee , an Orange County Democrat, addressed the state’s equity needs during a Forum unveiling of its “Top 10” Wednesday. Afterwards, Foushee told Policy Watch she believes the statewide bond—which would be the first in more than two decades if approved—still lacks “sufficient” support in the Senate.
“The pressure has to come from the public,” said Foushee. “These are facilities that children have to enter nine months out of the year. These are facilities where employees have to do their work with our most precious possessions.”
The Forum’s list  also takes up numerous hot-button topics for the state’s public schools, demanding “transparency and accountability” from North Carolina’s growing school choice sector, better recruitment of top teachers and principals, an overhaul of the state’s oft-maligned “A-F” school grading system  and a renewed emphasis on racial equity, as well as others.
Yet the state’s class size migraine topped the bill for the Forum. Policy Watch detailed the challenge for all 115 districts in a 2016 report . And while legislators offered a temporary salve last year, school districts say they once again face the prospect of having to lay off thousands of “enhancement” teachers in arts, music and P.E. to make way for more “core” subject teachers.
Districts—without additional funding or flexibility from the state—also point to insufficient classroom space to meet the legislative order.
Top GOP budget writers countered last year by arguing that they’ve fully funded recent orders to trim class sizes, a point disputed by at least one veteran legislative financial analyst . Poston, meanwhile, said the state’s current classroom allocation falls far short of the state’s needs.
“No one argues that smaller class sizes might be a useful investment,” added Poston. “But honestly, to lower classes by one or two students is hardly worth the turmoil this is creating.”
Meanwhile, school leaders are chafing at the General Assembly delays, pointing out school boards have already begun budget planning for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
“When (legislators) talk to superintendents who tell them March and April is soon enough, they might want to make more phone calls,” said Poston. “Because that’s not what superintendents are saying. They are under the gun.”
Foushee, a former local school board member in Orange County, said she believes Horn’s assertions about a fix, but she says ongoing legislative delays will only stymie local administrators as they prepare a budget in the coming weeks.
“It is imperative that we give them the information that they need to know where their budgets are going to be,” said Foushee. “If you don’t want to get rid of enhancement teachers, then you’re going to have to fund them. You can’t have it both ways.”
Download the Forum’s full Top 10 list here .