Do you remember Barbara Dell Carter?
If you’re a regular reader of our blog you just might, because I’ve written about her for three years in a row now. That’s three years in a row (that I’ve observed) that teacher assistants —and education in general — have been in the cross hairs of the state budget debate.
In those three years (longer than that, actually) Ms. Carter, who is a second grade teacher at John Cotten Tayloe Elementary in Beaufort County, hasn’t had a dedicated TA in her classroom. She gets only one hour a day of assistance, in which time her gifted students, her students with special needs, and her English language learners get one-on-one help from a TA to help them along academically. The rest of the hours in the day she is left alone to try to handle every child’s diverse set of needs herself.
When I visited Ms. Carter two years ago as she got her classroom ready for school, she 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 at that time.
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 [2013-14] 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 has 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 federally 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.
And that was in 2013, when the state lawmakers passed a budget that slashed funding for 3,800 TAs and 5,200 teaching jobs across the state.
In 2014, the budget debate took aim at teacher assistants again, cutting their funding by 22 percent.
And now, the Senate once again wants to eliminate thousands of teacher assistants—possibly more than 8,500 over the next two years. This proposal comes on top of the many cuts to TA funding over the past several 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.
I called John Cotten Tayloe’s principal, Bubs Carson, today. He said they’re still working with very few TAs, and he’s tried to do some creative scheduling to make sure that kids who have special needs are getting an hour of help each day.
As for the Senate’s proposal to take the money saved by cutting TAs and hire more teachers in an effort to get class sizes down — Carson wasn’t to keen on that idea.
“I don’t have anywhere to put those additional teachers,” said Carson. On top of that, he described how hard of a time he had hiring teacher vacancies this year in the first place — many candidates had at least one job offer, some multiple.
“It would be a struggle to find high quality teachers this late in the game,” said Carson.
In light of all of this, how are the teachers doing? How is Ms. Carter coping, I asked?
“They’re just doing the best they can,” said Mr. Carson. “They’ve just had to adjust.”
Barbara Dell Carter had some parting words for me as I left her classroom two years ago.
“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.”