Class size Q&A

Students in Coshenda Clark’s second-grade class file out for recess at Johnson Street Global Studies school in High Point.

Q. What are the class-size changes passed by the state legislature and signed into law?

A.: Two pieces of legislation, now law. First, there’s the original kindergarten through third-grade class-size-reduction mandate passed by the legislature as part of a much-larger budget appropriations bill in 2016. Then, this spring, legislators enacted changes that were seen as somewhat of a compromise to the original legislation, with a few new additions. You might have heard of that as House Bill 13. “For years, one of the Senate’s top priorities has been lowering class sizes in the early grades — because the research shows it leads to improved academic outcomes for our students,” said N.C. Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake), who helped draft final changes to HB 13.

Q. Between the original legislation and the compromise this spring, where exactly does this leave class sizes?

A. For 2017-18, the state says 23 students is the max for an individual K-3 class, and the average K-3 class size for a school system must be 20 or less by the end of the second month of school and for the remainder of the school year. For 2018-19 going forward, the limits drop again, split up by grade level:

  1. For kindergarten, on average, no more than one teacher per 18 students. Max 21.
  2. For first grade, on average, no more than one teacher per 16 students. Max 19.
  3. For second and third grades, on average, no more than one teacher per 17 students. Max 20.

Q. How does that compare to the status quo?

A. This school year, statewide, the max individual K-3 class size is 24 and the max average for the school system is 21. Here in Guilford County, for budgeting purposes, the school system allotted one teacher for every 22.5 expected students in K-3 at the majority of elementary schools, and one teacher per every 17.5 expected K-3 students at the school system’s “equity” schools, a designation for certain schools serving a high proportion of students living in poverty. There’s a lot of variation though.

Q. So what will K-3 class sizes in Guilford County Schools look like next year? The year after that?

A. For 2017-18, class sizes should come down by a bit for most K-3 schools. However, classes sizes at the equity schools will increase for a reason unrelated to the legislation. Basically, the federal carryover money that the school system had been using to pay for the lower class-size standard at those equity schools has run out. Unless something changes, for 2018-19 going forward, all elementary schools in the school system will drop to about where the equity schools are. So a typical K-3 class should be something like 16 to 18 children.

Q. Reduced class sizes for elementary schools sounds good, so why are Guilford County Schools officials sounding so unhappy about the state-mandated decreases?

A. They are projecting big costs for the school system, including both operating costs and one-time facilities costs. They also expect some other major hurdles, such as having to hire a bunch of teachers for the 2018-19 school year in a tough hiring climate. Moreover, they generally prefer the state give them more flexibility, rather than less, in how they spend money to educate. “While I support class-size reduction, it is not considered the best way to transform your school district or the most powerful way to improve schools,” Superintendent Sharon Contreras said “It just isn’t. We like it; I like it for my child, but it’s not the best way, based on the research, to do it.” Contreras, who is approaching one year as superintendent in Guilford County, found what seems to be bipartisan consensus on the Board of Education when it came to concern about the state’s class-size mandate. It’s fair to say, though, that officials also are relieved the compromise bill means they will have 2017-18 as a step down to that bigger class-size drop.

Q. So what are the costs?

A. According to Chief Financial Officer Angie Henry, the school system needs another $6.6 million per year in operating costs to comply with the class-size reductions for next year. Then, for 2018-19, officials will need another $10 million on top of that going forward. That’s just for staff costs. The school system also estimates it would need to create 29 additional classrooms, according to a memo sent to school board members. Each classroom costs about $27,245 to equip with new furniture and materials. Some savings are possible if they are able to transfer equipment from elsewhere in some cases, but that’s the conservative estimate. Randy Shaver, interim chief operations officer, said in an interview with Henry in late May his staff is estimating three elementary schools need another mobile unit. Officials are hoping to be able to use units they already have, but there’s still the hefty cost of moving and installing them. Mobile units aren’t quite as easily mobile as the name might imply. All told, he said, officials are looking at about $700,000 in facilities costs just for next year. Shaver said they don’t have an estimate yet for 2018-19.

Q. And so how are they going to pay for it?

A. Henry said officials don’t have the money they need right now for those class-size facility costs, and they’ll need to start spending before next year’s budget kicks in. She said they will need to postpone or delay other projects or comb the budget for unspent pockets — like from where positions took longer to fill than expected or something like that. “It is going to have a huge impact, and we will need to deal with that,” Shaver said. “We have to comply with the law and we are doing it.”

Q. Is there any help out there?

A. School officials say they hope county commissioners might pick up about $2 million of that cost. The school system’s budget calls for cutting 51 teacher-assistant positions to pay for $4.6 million of that cost. Other cuts in the budget include closing High School Ahead Academy, implementing an athletic fee and reorganizing and trimming central office staff. Officials plan to increase class sizes in grades 6-12 by one student at most schools and by two students at the middle colleges to help pay for anticipated rising salary and benefits costs for existing positions.

Q. Where’s a good place to start learning about research on the impact of class sizes on student success?

A. The Education Commission of the States is a cooperative effort endorsed by all 50 states and approved by Congress to provide resources and support for state policymakers. In response to a request for resources from a state legislative aide in 2016, the commission put together a page of links to information about what states are doing and outside resources on class size. This page includes two different takes on research on elementary class-size reduction. Grover Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos with the Brookings Institution argued in 2011 for caution in adopting class-size reduction policies, given mixed results from research and the relative expense versus many other school improvement strategies. They wrote, if state policymakers feel they must legislate reductions, they could be targeting disadvantaged students in early grades, the group smaller classes has been shown to benefit the most. Or officials could consider funding class-size reduction but allow for local decisions on how to use it, like reducing the class sizes of inexperienced teachers in particular. On the other hand, in 2016, William Mathis of the National Center for Education Policy wrote that the “overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed papers find class-size reduction an effective strategy,” one that “may” prove more cost-effective than alternatives, despite the expense. He warned disadvantaged students in particular could be harmed by increasing class sizes and recommended class sizes of between 15 and 18 students in a standard classroom. The ECS resources are available at http://bit.ly/2sn3OyU.

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— Compiled by Staff Writer Jessie Pounds

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