HB13 has merit, but funds needed

Unfunded mandates have consequences, and we hope our local legislators understand that as they begin to weigh the merit of House Bill 13, law that requires schools to make steep cuts in class sizes for kindergarten through third grade.

The premise is a good one. What educator wouldn’t support smaller class sizes that afford youngsters more one-on-one time with their teacher?

But reducing class sizes means a lot more than student-to-teacher ratios, and comes with a far heftier price tag, one that legislators didn’t offer to fund when they added a provision in the state’s budget last summer.

Think for a moment what HB13 actually would mean to local school systems already feeling the budget pinch. If a school is required to have one teacher for every 18 kindergartners, or one teacher per 16 first-graders, or one teacher per every 17 second or third-graders, then that equates to more classrooms and more teachers.

In burgeoning schools where student growth is already exceeding the size of even the newest schools across Sampson, that could mean more mobile units. There’s an additional cost that the General Assembly hasn’t offered any funding for. And then there’s the larger issue: more classrooms means the need for more teachers. And there’s the second cost that local school administrators haven’t seen any sign of funding for.

So what does that mean? Simply but sadly put, it means tough decisions for school systems which must find a way to afford the additional classrooms and the teachers needed to man them.

Local superintendents believe that means non-essential classes might hit the cutting room floor, a devastating blow we can only pray won’t be necessary.

Non-essential classes are those that aren’t specifically tied to academics, starting with the arts. As is always the case, when funding issues rear their ugly head, the arts are the first to be threatened. And that is a shame.

In our mind, music, art and theater art are as essential to a child’s academic and personal growth as math or science. And, in our schools, the supposedly non-essential classes are often used to help students having difficulty learning an academic concept. It’s called cross-curricular learning.

To the credit of both Sampson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy and Clinton City Schools chief Dr. Stuart Blount, stripping students of the arts would be a final straw approach to the HB13 mandate, but that it is even an option on the table is troublesome and the exact point we are trying to make about unfunded mandates.

We support legislators in their efforts to cut class sizes. Sen. Brent Jackson is correct, smaller class sizes will “make a huge difference down the road in the students’ ability to perform.”

But we urge lawmakers to provide funding for such a mandate that allows school systems to reduce their class sizes without stripping their schools of programs that are vital to every single student. And, just as importantly, we urge school leaders, faced with the likelihood that some cuts will be necessary, to look beyond the arts to other areas where fat can be trimmed.

While we believe mandates should come with the necessary money to fund them, we also aren’t foolish enough to believe that local school systems don’t have areas in which cuts can be made, areas that don’t directly impact students. As lawmakers and educators wrangle over how best to implement HB13, we urge our local school chiefs to take a close look at areas where some fat can be trimmed. That way, if the need to meet legislators halfway arises, they will be armed and ready with things that won’t take quality out of the hands of our students.