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A few short lines in the 2015-17 Senate budget would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees hired after January 1, 2016.

“This will negatively impact the state’s ability to recruit good, qualified folks,” said Richard Rogers, executive director of the North Carolina Retired Governmental Employees’ Association. “In the future, I don’t see folks sticking with state government for the long term or for a career.

Current law provides teachers and state employees with a paid health insurance plan for the duration of retirement. It’s a graduated system, said Rogers, so employees must work a certain number of years in order to receive the maximum benefit of a fully-paid health insurance plan.

The Senate budget provision, located deep in the biennial proposal that was released and passed by Senators this week, would affect teachers and state employees who join the workforce after January 1, 2016 by eliminating the health insurance benefit altogether.

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The provision also affects those who stop out of the workforce and withdraw their retirement benefits from the state system, then re-join the workforce after January 1, 2016. Those state employees would also forfeit their retiree health insurance benefits.

The retiree state health plan provides health care coverage to more than 685,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, current and former lawmakers, state university and community college personnel, state hospital staff and their dependents, according to the plan’s website.

The General Assembly is expected to spend the rest of the summer hammering out a final 2015-17 budget for the state. Stay tuned to see if the Senate’s proposal to axe retirement health benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

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A teacher and assistant principal at Orange County’s Efland-Cheeks Elementary School have resigned their positions following an uproar over the teacher’s decision to read a gay-themed fairy tale to his third grade students in an effort to put a stop to bullying in his school.

From the News & Observer:

Omar Currie and Meg Goodhand of Efland-Cheeks Elementary School submitted resignation letters, Orange County Schools spokesman Seth Stephens said Monday.

Currie had said he would resign because he felt administrators did not support him after he read “King & King,” in which two princes fall in love and get married. He has said he read the book after a boy in his class was called gay in a derogatory way and told he was acting like a girl.

Previous press reports detail how the teacher’s decision to read “King & King” sparked an uproar in the community, with parents filing formal objections to the book resulting in two public hearings.

While the Orange County elementary school has twice decided to uphold the use of the book, one parent has appealed that decision to the superintendent. Orange County schools will hold a public hearing on the matter Thursday evening.

Currie, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who is gay, says he’s felt unsupported in his decision to read the book to students and has been criticized for participating in an interview about the controversy on school grounds, even though he did not break any rules related to student privacy.

The News & Observer conducted a lengthy Q&A session with Currie that was published back in May. In the interview, Currie explains what happened the day he read “King & King,” what it’s like to teach in a rural school, and how he has experienced bullying himself as a gay African-American teen in middle school.

Can a teacher be an activist? (Currie and [assistant principal] Goodhand have been criticized for speaking at a conference for LGBT activists, which sought in part to challenge ‘the heteronormative culture in schools.’)

Currie: Yes, I think you should be. You have a group of students in your classroom. You leave a lasting impact and a lasting impression on them. It is important that you are championing the rights of those kids and the future of those kids. I think it’s important that you’re an activist and not just about things like that, but in general for the teaching profession and your rights as a teacher.

Read the full Q&A here.

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Teacher assistants ask Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville) to save their jobs

About a dozen teacher assistants from all over North Carolina came to the General Assembly Wednesday to tell lawmakers they’re not happy with the prospect of losing a significant chunk of their workforce thanks to a Senate budget proposal that eliminates more than 8,500 TAs from elementary school classrooms.

“It’s about the children and the future of North Carolina,” said teacher assistant Teresa Sawyer from Currituck County. “If you lose extra people in the classroom, what’s going to happen to these children?”

Senate lawmakers unveiled a budget this week that would rid North Carolina’s early grade classrooms of more than half of their state-funded teacher assistants.

TAs have been a target for state budget cuts for years—since 2008, the state has lost more than 7,000 of these instructional aides who also frequently double as bus drivers and first responders to medical emergencies.

Instead of providing enough funds to keep TAs in classrooms, Senate budget writers have proposed putting some funds instead toward hiring more teachers to reduce K-3 class sizes.

“It’s a good concept, because there is some research out there that says lower class sizes work better,” said North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants’ incoming president, William Johnston, “but [with the Senate budget proposal] you’ll get 2,000 more teacher positions and eliminate more than 8,000 TAs…you’re losing 6,000 sets of eyes to make sure that students get to where they need to be.”

“The safety of the children is being compromised,” added Johnston. “How are you going to cover lunch duty? How are kids going to get their medications?”

Others expressed concern over where the additional classes would be housed.

“Are they gonna give us money to create new construction?” wondered teacher assistant Lacy Autry. “In Robeson County, every one of our schools has three, four outside classrooms already. Where are you going to find room? We’ve taken janitorial supply closets to make classrooms. We just don’t have the room to reduce the sizes.”

Teacher assistants at the General Assembly on Wednesday also explained that a lot more is expected of them now than ever before, thanks to increased testing requirements and cuts to school nurses—and without their service, students will suffer.

“So if you don’t have that extra help in the classroom while teachers are pulling students out to work on testing requirements, children will just be doing a lot more busy work,” said TA Andrea Cranfill from Davie County.

And in Bladen County, the entire district has just four nurses to share among 13 schools.

“I’m the first responder in my school,” said Johnston. “We have a nurse maybe one day a week. So what happens the other four days a week if I’m not there?”

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TAs visit the office of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph)

Many TAs administer medications, serve on crisis response teams and even administer catheters and feeding tubes, according to those who came down to the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Senator Andrew Brock, a member of the Senate budget committee, seemed sympathetic to the TAs’ concerns.

“I’ve got some issues with that,” Sen. Brock said in response to the prospect of the state losing TAs.

The teacher assistants also visited the offices of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) and Senate budget writer Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville).

The Senate plans to pass a final budget this week, then set to work on a final compromise with the House this summer.

Watch TAs explain to Sen. Harry Brown’s staff the importance of keeping them in the classroom.

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State lawmakers could soon decide to anoint pro-school privatization nonprofit Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) to distribute taxpayer dollars to new charter schools in the state, according to the Associated Press.

From the AP:

The budget proposal being considered by the General Assembly may break new ground in state spending by letting Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina decide which fledgling charter schools get a piece of $1 million a year, N.C. Center for Nonprofits vice president David Heinen said.

“This is probably unique to have a completely independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit having discretion without a lot of criteria,” said Heinen, citing the chapter of federal tax law describing charity and educational groups. “I don’t know of any other that is quite like this.”

If the Senate endorses what is currently a House proposal, PEFNC would be tasked with doling out up to $1 million annually in start-up funds for new charter schools (up to $100,000 each) to set up shop in geographic areas where charter schools are few in number.

When the House rolled out this idea earlier this year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern over the idea that a private group beholden to virtually no public oversight could be tasked with handing out taxpayer dollars.

Legislative efforts have attempted to direct similar responsibilities to PEFNC in years past.

In 2013, lawmakers proposed giving the nonprofit $1 million over two years to develop charter schools in rural parts of the state, but that measure did not pass. A similar bill was filed last year too, but also did not survive.

None of the taxpayer funds can go toward administrative or management fees, according to the current proposal. Darrell Allison, executive director of PEFNC, already receives a large compensation package that has has increased considerably over a short time.

In 2010, Allison received $107,889 for his work running the non-profit; in 2012, Allison reported an income of $156,582—a 45 percent pay increase in just two years. In 2013, his salary bumped up again to $167,085, according to tax records.

PEFNC has received millions of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation (owners of Wal-Mart) over the past several years. The Waltons are known for supporting education initiatives such as vouchers, charter schools and other privatization measures.

For more background on PEFNC, click here.

The Senate begins the process of rolling out their budget later today in committee meetings. I’ll be tweeting from Senate Ed at 4pm — follow me on Twitter @LindsayWagnerNC.

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This week, researchers from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College released a report that finds that the learning gains young children experience from watching Sesame Street are on par with what students learn in preschool.

From The Washington Post:

The researchers also say those effects probably come from Sesame Street’s focus on presenting viewers with an academic curriculum, heavy on reading and math, that would appear to have helped prepare children for school.

While it might seem implausible that a TV show could have such effects, the results build on Nixon-era government studies that found big short-term benefits in watching the show, along with years of focus-group studies by the team of academic researchers who help write “Sesame Street” scripts. Several outside researchers have reviewed the study, and none are known to have questioned its results.

As my toddler channels the Count when totaling the number of grapes he has in his bowl each day (ha, ha, haaaa, as the Count would say), it’s easy to see the impact of Sesame Street’s strong educational components.

But is Elmo enough?

The study’s authors do point out that preschool—Head Start, in particular, which is targeted toward low-income children— is designed to deliver more than just academics. It also comes with access to medical and dental services, family supports and opportunities for socialization that you can’t get from your television set.

That message, however, got a little buried in the Washington Post story titled, “Study: Kids can learn as much from ‘Sesame Street’ as from preschool.”

“There’s a lot of development that happens in an early education setting,” said Rob Thompson, executive director of the children’s advocacy group NC Child. “Children develop important social and emotional skills in pre-kindergarten that help success in school and in all aspects of life.”

North Carolina has been a beacon that other states look toward for how to do preschool right. The return on investing in NC pre-kindergarten is estimated to be $9 for every dollar spent, according to the N.C. Justice Center.*

High- quality preschool can increase a child’s performance in the early school grades and boost high school graduation rates, improve chances of landing a job later in life, and reduce criminal behavior, among other benefits, according to researchers at the Carolina Institute for Public Policy.

But over the past several years, the state has steadily decreased its support for pre-kindergarten programs that target at-risk youth by reducing the number of pre-K slots available to at-risk children.

“Reduced access to early learning for at-risk youth means that many of these children are likely to begin their primary education lagging their peers,” according the Justice Center report.

Wellesley College’s Phil Levine, co-author of the Sesame Street study, emphasized to NC Policy Watch that the children’s show is a great way to augment a high quality preschool program — not a replacement.

“It’s a mistake to think of these things as one or the other,” said Levine, when comparing Sesame Street to preschool. “What you get in terms of the long term effects from pre-K are partly academic and partly nonacademic—and those nonacademic effects are really important.”

Levine says when it comes to fighting poverty and inequality, there’s no magic bullet.

“The more tools in our arsenal, the better—and Sesame Street is just another good one.”

*NC Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.