Last year brought a lot of changes for North Carolina's Public School System. There was a new state superintendent and new legislation involving classroom sizes, charter schools, and school bus safety.

WFDD's education reporter Keri Brown breaks down some of the top issues to watch this year.

Class Size Debate

In 2016, the General Assembly passed a law that required school districts across the state to reduce the maximum class sizes in grades K-3. This became a major issue as school districts began the process.

It's certainly one off the biggest issues to look out for this year. Supporters of the legislation say smaller class sizes give younger students better outcomes. A lot of people don't disagree with that, but there's been a lot of controversy because many school districts are struggling to find a way to pay for the changes.

In Guilford County for example, they've spent more than $8 million to meet the requirements for this current school year. GCS officials say they've had to redirect funds and increase class sizes for grades 4th through 5th, middle and even some high schools. Other districts say they may be forced to cut programs like physical education or arts.

It's important to note that since the 2014-15 fiscal year, the General Assembly has provided money to school districts to modestly decrease class sizes in grades K-3, and there are a lot of good intentions behind the legislation.

But many school districts say it's not enough and they are worried about the 2018-2019 school year. They say it could mean building new classrooms, hiring more staff and paying for other expenses.

They're holding out hope that lawmakers will revisit the issue to provide additional funding to meet the small-class size mandate.

Funding overhaul for NC Public Schools:

Lawmakers are looking at changing how the state funds K-12 education. We're talking about more than $9 billion in state taxpayer money that's distributed annually to North Carolina Public Schools. The current system uses what are called allotments, or categories. For example, there's one for textbooks, teachers, etc.

A recent study says the current system is outdated, complex and difficult to understand. Critics also say the formula favors wealthier counties and larger, urban districts.

There's a lot of debate about what the changes should be. Do they reform the current system or do a complete overhaul?

The General Assembly has created a task force to study the issue. Lawmakers are also looking at how other states use weighted models. That's where the funding follows the child and additional funds are provided based on a student's need. So for example, if a student has a disability, they would receive additional funding.

We should learn more about it this year. The task force recommendations are due by October.

On The Innovative School District And Why It's Such A Hot Topic: 

The state legislature passed a law in 2016 to create the Innovative School District. This is an experimental program that's meant to boost student achievement in low-performing schools. The state will select charter-operating companies to run these schools for a five-year period. That means the operator will have the authority to hire teachers among other things. The State Department of Public Instruction has narrowed down the list of schools that qualify.

As of now, The Innovative School District will start this fall with one school: Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson County.  Critics of the measure say it's a state takeover in local school districts and they say lawmakers need to focus on providing more resources for struggling schools.

Four other schools will also be selected by the state for transfer over the next few years, so we will be hearing more about this issue and looking at the outcomes.

New Leader – Legal Dispute Over Transfer Of Power

A change in leadership took place last year in North Carolina Public Schools. Republican Mark Johnson took over after beating long-time incumbent June Atkinson in the Nov. 2016 election. But Johnson has faced some challenges in his first year. 

Soon after Mark Johnson was elected as superintendent, the General Assembly passed legislation that transferred some powers from the state board of education to Johnson. That includes more control over the state's education budget and oversight of charter schools. It also allows him to hire senior-level aides.

The board filed a lawsuit saying the shift violates the state constitution.

In July, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Johnson. But it didn't end there. The legal battle now heads to the N.C. Supreme Court, which has decided to hear the case. A temporary stay has been granted, which means the transfer of power to Johnson was put on hold.

It's likely we will see this issue resolved in the coming months. It's an important case because legal experts say the final outcome will help clarify who's really in charge of North Carolina's public schools.

*Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news





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