Legislators hoping to enjoy a few days of R&R this week may find a less than warm homecoming from local educators in their districts. The Wilmington Star News writes in a Tuesday editorial:

Education cutsTeachers, it seems as if some North Carolina legislators really want you to move to another state.

The state Senate’s budget plan would eliminate retiree health-care benefits for teachers (and any other state employees) hired after Jan. 1. 2016.

It’s not hard to see why: Health-care benefits for old people can be expensive.

On the other hand, teachers — especially North Carolina teachers — endure years of pay far lower than they could get in the private sector. Part of the trade-off is that they can expect generous — well, comfortable, well, adequate — pensions and benefits to tide them through their golden years.

Not any more, if the Senate has its way. A lot of the incentive for sticking with the public school system would be knocked away.

Officials in the state employees’ association complain that the state has been adding surcharges and other fees to its health plan for years. The increase, more than $1,300 per year for a typical state employee, active or retired — more than wipes out any pay increase that teachers and others have received in many years.

Teachers aren’t eligible for full health benefits as retirees until they’ve served for 20 years.

This comes on top of a Senate proposal to eliminate 8,500 teachers’ assistant positions across the state. The cuts supposedly would pay for around 2,000 new teacher positions to reduce class size.

In fact, eliminating those positions — more than one-third of the teachers’ assistants in the state — would cause problems in the classroom.
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Commentary, News

lw-driversNorth Carolina legislators won’t resume budget talks for another week, but it’s clear locals officials are worried about public safety if the final spending package fails to fund driver’s education programs at our schools.

The Asheville Citizen Times reports local school leaders acknowledge the need for the program, but can no longer absorb the costs to run the program locally:

“We’re very nervous that we will be given another unfunded mandate” in the form of a requirement that schools provide driver’s ed but no provision in the state budget to pay for them,” said Bill Nolte, associate superintendent for Haywood County Schools.

Legislators “are going to say, ‘take it from other funds,’ but we don’t have other funds,” Nolte said. “We’ve lost over $5 million (in state funding) since January of 2009. We’ve lost over 130 employees.”

The impasse has several sources: efforts by both legislative chambers to end use of gas tax proceeds and other highway-related revenue sources for any programs not part of the state Department of Transportation; skepticism in the Senate over how much students learn in the classes; and a push in that chamber to cut personal and corporate income tax rates, steps that would limit how much money is available to fund programs like driver’s ed.

The idea to eliminate state funding for driver’s ed at the high school level is also a troubling proposition for the editorial board of the Rocky Mount Telegram that explains:

The plan to end driver’s ed will negatively impact low-income teenagers – especially those who live in the inner city whose families may rely solely on public transportation. Wherever they live, low-income families currently scraping together the $65 for publicly-subsidized dirver’s ed are unlikely to be able to afford $300 or $400 to send their teens to community college driver’s ed classes.

Students learn important lessons about defensive driving in driver’s ed that help prevent accidents and save lives.

By eliminating driver’s ed, lawmakers will be putting everyone on the state’s roadways at higher risk.

Read the full editorial the Telegram here. And you can read the full article in the Citizen-Times here.

Commentary, News

Today’s must read story comes from NC Policy Watch education reporter Lindsay Wagner, who profiles several of the teaching assistants who stand to lose their jobs if lawmakers adopt the Senate’s budget proposal when they return from a scheduled summer recess.

Here’s an excerpt from Wagner’s story:

As a part of their “Pink Slips Truth” tour that’s made stops in Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greenville, scores of teacher assistants (TAs) joined Hefner at the state capitol Tuesday to draw attention to the Senate’s budget, which proposes eliminating more than 8,500 TAs from state classrooms over the next two years.

“The message the politicians are sending is, ‘Y’all have a happy fourth of July! We’re going to the beach! Maybe we’ll fire you when we get back,’” said Melinda Zarate, state secretary of the North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants at a press conference.

It’s around this point during the summer break that local school districts must make staffing decisions for the upcoming year based on how the state has decided to fund the classroom.

But as the end of the fiscal year approached, lawmakers still hadn’t reached a budget deal, forcing them to pass a continuing resolution Tuesday that keeps state government running while a final budget is hammered out.

The General Assembly left the fate of teacher assistants’ jobs, however, up in the air. Budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) said Monday evening that it’s up to local school districts to decided if they would like to draw down a pot of funds intended to accommodate student enrollment growth in order to save TAs’ jobs.

After years of cuts to public education, local school districts may technically have flexibility in how they use state funds, but many school officials have said there are too few dollars to have much real choice in how they divvy up money to keep classrooms up and running now that the state has fallen to 46th nationally in funding schools on a per pupil basis.

To read Wagner’s full story on the teaching assistants, click here. To hear to Melinda Zarate with the North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants talk about what’s at stake in her own words, click below:

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If you weren’t able to attend NC Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation with the nationally recognized Center for Death Penalty Litigation, that full program is now available online.

Last week’s event featured CDPL Executive Director retchen Engel, Senior Staff Attorney Ken Rose and Associate Director of Public Information Kristin Collins.

Please watch and then share this special presentation as they discuss their new research: On Trial for their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions.
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Look for lawmakers to pass a continuing resolution this week to keep state government operating until the House and Senate can agree on the state’s 2015-2017 budget.

One issue that educators are watching closely is how lawmakers will fund teaching assistants in the final spending bill.

As the Sanford Herald reported over the weekend, local school districts are pondering what it would mean to lose thousands of TAs:

Senator Ronald J. Rabin

Senator Ronald J. Rabin

Sen. Ronald Rabin (R-Lee, Harnett, Johnston) said the legislature was busy working toward a finalized budget, but that he was uncertain how it would affect teacher’s assistants.

“Teacher’s assistants perform a valuable function,” Rabin, who voted for the Senate’s proposed budget, told the Herald on Saturday. “Everyone’s aware of that. The fact is we can’t afford everything everybody wants. We have a balanced budget mandate by law, and we have a finite number of revenues to spread across that.”

Rep. Brad Salmon (D-Lee, Harnett) and Rep. Robert Reives II (D- Lee, Chatham) didn’t respond to calls for comment, but both voted for the House’s proposed budget.

Lee County Schools Superintendent Andy Bryan maintained that teacher’s assistants provided a valuable function in kindergarten, first-, second- and third-grade classrooms.

“Our board has taken the stance that they want to protect the classroom,” Bryan said. “We see teacher’s assistants as a very important part of making sure our classrooms are served well and are successful for our students.”

Lynn Smith, chairman of the Lee County Board of Education, agreed, adding that the Senate’s proposal to reduce class sizes to ease the burden on elementary teachers would not be enough to serve students.

Public ed cuts

Educators and parents will rally for teaching assistants Tuesday.

“I know there’s been a conversation about putting money back in the budget to reduce classroom size,” Smith said. “But the fact is that not having someone in there for grades K-3 really makes it difficult for teachers to meet all the diverse needs of the kids that they’re serving.”

Smith also pointed out that many teacher’s assistants, like Womble, served as bus drivers as well.

“If we lose teacher’s assistants, I guess you’d have to go out and hire part-time employees to drive the buses,” Smith said. “Goodness, I don’t know how we’d deal if we lose our bus drivers.”

On Tuesday, the NC Association of Teacher Assistants, Aim Higher Now, along with dozens of parents and educators will speak out against the North Carolina Senate’s plan to slash 8,500 teacher assistant jobs.

The group is hoping to have an impact on the budget discussions before lawmakers adjourn for a week-long summer recess.