Each win matters: Public education advocates reflect on a year of struggle to solve the class size crisis

Each win matters: Public education advocates reflect on a year of struggle to solve the class size crisis

[Editor’s note: In the aftermath of recent action by state lawmakers to back down from their previously enacted unfunded mandate to shrink K-3 class sizes, education policy advocate Sarah Montgomery of the North Carolina Justice Center asked some of the parents and teachers who spoke up on the issue to share their reflections on a hard-fought victory.] ——

“You can’t stay neutral on a moving train” –Howard Zinn

The words of any great thinker continue to resonate across generations, offering meaning and illuminating context to guide our present actions. Zinn’s classic observation reflects on our state’s coordinated assault on its most fundamental institution, the public school, one tasked with preparing active, informed and engaged members of society. His words capture the essence and urgency to interact with and influence public policy. Democracy is a path we create; we must articulate where it is we want to go and be proactive in helping shape that destination.

Across North Carolina, our public schools rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of over a million children, regardless of parental income, their community’s characteristics, their needs or abilities. Despite our abysmal ranking of 43rd in the nation for per pupil funding, our state’s teachers and administrators continue to work miracles for our children to ensure that their students will still get what they need. This dedication, professionalism and commitment to serving our children, stands in stark contrast to a narrative created by many members of our General Assembly that denigrates public education.

North Carolina faces its fair share of challenges. What often goes unappreciated in the back and forth of political discourse is that the most pressing challenges we face are self-imposed, either by design or by neglect. The class size chaos that gripped our state for over a year was entirely avoidable. The eventual fix came down to the wire, with many districts already having spent millions of local dollars to prepare for the expected staffing changes and to accommodate their buildings for the mandate that was expected to take effect this fall.

Guilford County alone spent $8 million dollars to comply with the aggressive deadline district leaders were facing. HB90 provides necessary relief to districts by phasing in the lower class room requirements over the next four years and committing $61 million in recurring funding for specialist teacher, however it only addressed the operational costs associated with the mandate- absent are the capital funds needed in order to achieve the goal of smaller class sizes.

This week, NC Policy Watch will feature a handful of stories of people struggling to reconcile this tradeoff promoted by some of our state’s lawmakers. Two parents and two educators share how they became involved in education advocacy, specifically through the class size crisis, a policy that many viewed as their breaking point for its egregiousness and futility. While only a sampling, these stories illustrate how more and more North Carolinians are engaging in our education policy debate, unable to remain neutral, they choose to intervene on behalf of our children before, they feel, it is too late.

Today, we offer the first of these stories. Be sure to check back tomorrow through Thursday for three more stories that will be featured on The Progressive Pulse blog.

We need to improve supports for our special needs kids

 By Susan Book

My name is Susan Book and I’m the proud parent of Emerson, a 2nd grader at Reedy Creek Elementary a traditional calendar, Title 1 school that serves kids in both Raleigh and Cary in Wake County.  My second grader is on the Autism Spectrum. Raising a special needs kid means that small problems can have a large impact. The class size mandate was a large problem with an even larger impact for kids with disabilities.

Emerson’s best days are days with “specials.” It is not just the teachers although their knowledge of their craft is imperative. It is also the learning space. For many kids on the spectrum, space is important. Classrooms can be stressful and the simple act of leaving one can help alleviate anxiety. The loss of specials teachers and their classrooms is terrible for any child, but kids on the spectrum feel it a little deeper.

They crave specials not just for the instruction but for the stress relief those subjects provide. Often in the career of an elementary school kid these are the teachers who remain the most constant. For those kids in separate special needs classrooms, joining in an art, P.E., or music room with a mainstream class, may be the only interaction they get with the rest of the school.

While I’m pleased that HB90 committed $61 million in a recurring fund for specialist teachers, my concern now is that they changed the rules for Education Savings Accounts, a tool used to further privatize our public school system and direct critically needed funding away from the schools serving the majority of our kids.

Originally, to qualify for the ESA, a child had to be enrolled in public school. Under HB90 that rule is revoked. Kids already in private schools now qualify for the ESA. Why does this matter? North Carolina’s ESA provides $9,000 from the state for a special needs child to be used at a private institution (there are some other uses too, but let’s stick with the main one). If a special needs child goes from a public school to a private one this might save the state money. It takes more than $9,000 for the state to educate a special needs child. We special needs families are a bit of an expensive lot. However, if a private school special needs child uses the voucher; well we no longer have that ‘savings’. It also widens the lottery pot for those applying.

Since it typically takes more than $9,000 to educate a special needs kid, how can the private schools manage? The truth is they can’t. Either the parent is paying out of pocket for special services, or there are no special services, and a special needs child is getting short changed. I urge all tax paying North Carolinians to take a look at the list of schools currently eligible for the ESA program.

The first thing you notice is that the state simply supplies a list. There are no links or further information except for location. The burden is on the parent to research the schools. Many of the schools’ websites lack transparency.

I started writing emails to get simple answers to questions like: Do you have certified special education teachers? Do you provide other therapeutic services like speech? It shocked me that so many of the schools that accept ESA and disability vouchers don’t have what I consider the bare minimum of service in a certified special education teacher. Some allow speech or OT [occupational therapy] services, but they are contracted privately through the parent, and insurance is charged.

There were schools on the list specifically set up to handle and teach special needs kids. They also are some of the most expensive schools on the list. While base tuition may not look, initially, too expensive, it’s the add-ons that might surprise you. Any special needs service including one-on-one time is an add-on expense. However, the worst part of schools like this is that special needs kids are separated. Disability advocates have long battled for inclusion into public school and not exclusion. Public schools are increasingly trying to get special needs kids included in normal developing classrooms. My son is one of those kids included in a normal 2nd grade class. If he was in a special needs-only private school, I might otherwise not be able to convey the following story:

My child was hungry and a little cranky one morning in class. Given his IEP [Individualized Education Program] the teacher was going to allow him a snack. She didn’t want him digging into his lunch just yet, so she offered him some pretzels. My son shouted “no,” and proceeded to run to his safe spot in his special education teacher’s room. Once he was calm, we found out why he didn’t want to eat the pretzels. He didn’t want to eat the pretzels because those pretzels are for kids who don’t have snack. He felt like he had plenty of food, and he said he didn’t want to take away any food from kids who don’t have enough.

 I’ve never been so proud of my son, or so proud of his public school education in that moment, as he demonstrated his grasp of one of the most important lessons any child can learn. Kids can learn from each other’s differences and be better citizens because of it.

Sarah Montgomery is a Policy Advocate with the N.C. Justice Center’s Education & Law Project. Susan Book is a proud Wake County mom.