Do you remember Barbara Dell Carter?
She’s the second grade classroom teacher at John Cotten Tayloe Elementary School in “little” Washington, who I visited late last summer while she dutifully prepared her classroom for the first day of school.
As she straightened up her books (many of which she procured through her own means), Carter told me of her fears of facing yet another year without a dedicated teacher assistant (TA), not to mention how to cope with a state budget that dealt significant cuts to other areas of the classroom.
She is worried. Not the back-to-school jitters kind of worried; she has deep-seated concerns about the challenges she will face this year as educators grapple with a public school budget that spends $500 million less than what was spent in 2008.
Five years ago, the teacher assistant who is now sitting in Carter’s classroom preparing instructional materials would typically spend the entire day, every day, with Carter during the school year. That teacher assistant would help her manage 21 or 22 seven-year-old children who need to go to the bathroom, get fed, learn a lesson at a slightly slower or faster pace, or go to the nurse’s office, among many other possible situations, all throughout the day.
Now, that teacher assistant will be shared among four or five other classrooms. So maybe Carter will have a colleague help her manage her classroom for just an hour each day.
Working in rural Beaufort County, Carter also helped me understand that she must educate a student population that had an awful lot of needs.
“Often when children come to my classroom, they are hungry. They need to be fed before they can think about reading comprehension,” she explains. “And I don’t know how many children come to school who are sleeping three or four to a bed. And maybe one sibling wets the bed. So they come to school hungry, tired, and wearing yesterday’s clothes, sometimes soaked with urine.”
“As teachers, we feel that we need to fix all our students’ problems so they can get down to learning. Their intrinsic needs must be met first,” said Carter.
Every teacher, Carter speculates, at John Cotten Tayloe has bought clothing for students at one time or another, or taken a child to get cleaned up and fed so they can learn. They dig into their own pockets and rely on the support of the PTA and the church to help them.
In this context, Carter wondered how she would ensure her students would accomplish the learning gains they need to make with an hour or less each day of extra help.
A classroom of 21 students is not terribly large, explained Carter, but without support it will be difficult. “And now that they have lifted the cap on classroom sizes, what will we do? We can keep adding desks, but that’s not good for our students,” said Carter.
Many of Carter’s students have Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. These are state-mandated learning plans that are intended for children with disabilities or special learning needs. Teachers must provide specialized instruction and assessments for children with IEPs to help them achieve specified learning goals.
When you have increased class sizes and fewer educators in the classroom, it will be much more difficult to identify early on which children have special needs and need special accommodations.
“When the General Assembly looks at education, they look at numbers, not individual children. But there are so many other issues to consider,” said Carter.
That was last year, when the budget slashed funding for 3,800 TAs and 5,200 teaching jobs across the state.
And now, lawmakers are fighting over a budget that may give teachers a much-needed and deserved pay raise, but possibly at the expense of even more teacher assistants.
The Senate has proposed eliminating the jobs of half of the state’s teacher assistants, or those who are second and third grade TAs. But the reality is that many school districts, especially the poorer ones, have been operating without those TAs for years.
Teacher assistant positions, however, have not been filled by Carson, [John Cotten Tayloe's principal] as people have retired or moved on.
“We had to make a decision three years ago – when a teacher assistant left or retired, we would just have to adjust without that position. And over the past three years, we’ve lost ten teacher assistants, either through attrition or transfer. No one has lost their job—some folks we transferred to another local elementary school,” said Carson.
John Cotten Tayloe has 29 homerooms, and five or so years ago, each of those homerooms would have had a teacher assistant.
But the state has been systematically pulling back funding for teacher assistants over the past several years. For this 2013-15 biennial budget, $120 million has been cut out of the state appropriation for teacher assistants, which amounts to a loss of nearly 4,000 teacher assistant positions statewide.
The cumulative effect these cuts have had on the classroom is clear. This year the school will have just eight teacher assistants to be shared by 29 classrooms.
This comes at a particularly difficult time, explained Carson, because educational trends are heading in a direction that would actually demand more personnel in the classroom.
So if the Senate wins out and TA funding is dramatically reduced, John Cotten Tayloe Elementary could end up with few to no TAs in their classrooms.
They’d also potentially have to deal with even more classroom cuts. The House budget slashes $293 million in public school funding from the budget adopted in 2013 and shifts lottery revenues to make up some of the difference, but not all of it. The Senate wants to cut $436 million in education funding.
Barbara Dell Carter had some parting words for me as I left her classroom last year.
“I am a taxpayer. I know no one likes to see their taxes increase, but if that money goes toward producing a generation of more productive citizens, then I don’t know what better investment there is that I can make.”