Class-size limits, charter school changes, ban on COVID shot mandates in NC House budget
The newly released state budget proposal hits on far more education issues than just raises for teachers and school employees.
The plan released by North Carolina House Republican leaders touches on a wide-range of education topics, such as requiring lesson plans to be posted online, changing who approves charter schools and setting new class-size rules. Other items include preventing COVID-19 vaccination mandates in schools and expanding the N.C. Teaching Fellows program.
Here’s a look at some of the many education-related budget items.
The budget would cap class sizes in elementary schools at 24 students for both fourth and fifth grades. This comes after state lawmakers previously capped class sizes in K-3, which school leaders have blamed for forcing them to increase class sizes in the other grades.
Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a North Wilkesboro Republican and an art teacher, said that fourth graders have been having difficulty transitioning into larger classes. He said they’re seeing that reflected in math proficiency.
One solution is to cap the class size in fourth grade, as well as provide funding to fourth-grade teaching assistants to help with the transition.
“When we picked this (cap of) 24, we felt like most of the (school) systems were compliant,” Elmore told The N&O after a news conference Wednesday.
“There were some that were running over. And you know, class size stuff ebbs and flows. So some systems that might not be at this cap right now, next year, it might be a little bit different because some classes are bigger than others as they move through,” Elmore said.
Asked if it could lead to staffing problems in some schools, Elmore said: “I feel like in this very moment, no, but as we move forward, possibly.”
The class size cap would go into effect in the new school year that starts this summer and fall, he said.
Some elementary schools have seen class sizes rise to 30 or more students in the upper grades. The state’s class size rules have also reduced how many students elementary schools can hold, which Wake County school leaders say is why so many campuses can’t take new students.
Charter school changes
The budget would take away the State Board of Education’s power to decide on charter school applications and whether to renew or shut down existing charters.
Lawmakers would transfer the power over charter schools to the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board, which would be renamed the N.C. Charter Schools Review Board. The state board would be limited to setting general rules about charter schools and reviewing appeals of decisions made by the review board.
Members of the review board are mainly appointed by the GOP-led state legislature. In contrast, the majority of the members of the State Board of Education are appointees of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The state board recently rejected two charter school applications recommended by the advisory board.
Another change would allow the state’s two existing virtual charter schools to stay open through the 2025-26 school year and to increase their enrollment even though they’ve been low-performing since they opened.
Changing social studies standards?
State lawmakers also want to change how standards for different courses are set following complaints about social studies standards approved in 2021. The state board said the new standards are more inclusive, while critics said it was too negative about American history.
Under the budget, a newly created Standard Course of Study Advisory Commission would recommend the standards that would be used for each subject. The budget directs the commission, whose members would be appointed by lawmakers, to make recommended changes to the social studies standards by Jan. 1, 2025.
The State Board of Education could adopt or reject the recommendations but would not be allowed to make substantial changes if it approves them. If the recommendations are rejected, reasons would have to be given and the commission would send revised recommendations.
The state board could adopt its own standards if it rejects the revised recommendations.
No COVID-19 vaccination requirement
The budget would bar K-12 public schools, community colleges or the UNC System from requiring students to receive the COVID-19 vaccination or to show proof they’ve received the shot. The COVID-19 shot is not among the required vaccinations in the state.
No state agency, county, city or municipality would be allowed to require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination or show proof they had received the shot. This “medical freedom” rule would apply to school employees.
The proposal comes as Republicans have filed multiple “Medical Freedom” bills to block any COVID-19 mandates.
School meal debt
The budget provides up to $7.8 million to help schools cover rising meal debts from students being unable to pay for their food.
School meals were free last school year as part of a federal pandemic-related waiver. But the waiver ended, so students who are not eligible for subsidized meals have to pay again.
School meal debt has already risen to more than $3 million statewide this school year. It’s strapping school budgets and causing some students to not get meals.
Teaching Fellows expanded
The budget would restore an expanded version of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program in an effort to attract more teachers.
Under the program, students who agree to teach in the state’s schools can get forgivable college loans. The budget would expand eligibility to include teachers in all subjects, all UNC System schools and up to four private colleges.
GOP lawmakers had previously eliminated the program. They later restored it, but limited it to eight colleges statewide and to teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and special education.