As parents waited in the carpool line Dec. 4 at A.B. Combs Magnet Elementary school, they were greeted by PTA volunteers passing out bright green fliers. The fliers, from the school’s PTA chapter, urged parents to get involved in politics. Their cause? The class size reduction mandate passed this spring by the General Assembly.
The fliers listed possible impacts from requiring lower class sizes, advice on how to argue against the mandate, and contact information for the Wake County legislative delegation and the Senate Committee on Education.
The General Assembly required local school systems to reduce their class sizes starting in the 2018-19 school year. Class sizes for K-3 grades would be capped at 18 for kindergarten, 16 for first grade, 17 for second and third grade. The idea is that smaller class sizes would result in improved student performance as teachers are able to spend more time on each individual student.
Currently, class size averages in Wake County public schools for kindergarten, second grade, and third grade are at 20, while first grade averages 19. Critics of the mandate are concerned that without additional state funding, school districts will have to provide more money to meet the mandate.
The A.B Combs Elementary PTA says the unfunded class size mandate will hurt public schools and warns that 27 elementary schools in Wake County cannot meet the mandate requirements.
A.B. Combs Elementary PTA President Sarah London said the unfunded mandate was well-intended, but the unintended consequences will hurt students and teachers.
“We had a group of parents who were concerned about the implications of the unfunded class size mandate,” London said. “Here in Wake County we need over 400 classrooms just to accommodate it. That doesn’t include the teachers who have to be hired. We are just concerned what negative impact this may have on our children.”
London explained that the goal is to educate parents about the possible implications of the unfunded mandate and what they can do about it. The A.B. Combs Elementary PTA passed a resolution on November 20 urging the General Assembly to take up the issue during the January special session.
Terry Stoops, the John Locke Foundation’s vice president of research and director of education studies, said it is unusual but not unheard of for PTAs to get involved in advocacy.
“The purpose of the PTA is to give parents an outlet by which they can positively help the school advance its mission,” Stoops said. Political advocacy should not be part of the group’s mission.
Stoops said PTAs from higher-income urban and suburban areas are more likely to get involved in politics. Affluent parents are more likely to take the time to organize such endeavors, as The Atlantic Monthly noted last year in a feature story.
While the A.B. Combs Elementary PTA may have a legitimate concern, Stoops said the PTA isn’t the most appropriate means for advocacy.
“When you do this through the PTA, you create the perception of partisanship, which PTAs should avoid,” Stoops argued.
Stoops said the PTA has framed the debate about the class size mandate as a complaint against the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s education policies.
“If I was the president of a PTA of diverse student population and therefore a diverse family population, I would try to avoid any perception of partisanship so that all parents feel welcomed,” Stoops said.
London insisted the A.B. Combs PTA advocacy campaign is not driven by politics.
“We don’t want this to be political,” London explained. “This is an issue based group. We are not here to be political.”
Even so, A.B. Combs PTA posted support for the Wear Red 4 Ed campaign on its Facebook page. The campaign, organized and endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators, pushes for higher taxpayer funding for public schools.
“This is an NCAE campaign,” Stoops said. “There is no clearer signal that there is a political intent in what [the A.B. Combs PTA] are doing than their participation in the Wear Red 4 Ed campaign.”
The PTA’s Facebook page also links to the website of Public Schools First NC, a left-leaning advocacy group that opposes school choice of all forms, including public charter schools. The site includes suggested text of letters parents should write to legislators, urging them to ease the class size mandate.