Citizen-Times: Lack of budget causing big headaches for WNC schools

“I feel like our kids are being held hostage by the General Assembly’s lack of a budget.”

That’s the word from Yancey County Schools’ superintendent Tony Tipton, who says that lawmakers’ failure to reach a deal on a two year state budget means students haven’t been able to learn how to drive over the summer.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times:

The other big wild card in school funding this year is whether the state will continue paying for driver’s education classes. The Senate budget would eliminate funding and the House would continue it.

That has left many WNC school officials reluctant to continue their driver’s ed programs past the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year June 30 for fear that they would have to pay all of the cost with local funds.

Some systems stopped classroom instruction but allowed students who had completed classwork to get in their time behind the wheel. Others just halted their programs altogether, said Lee Roy Ledford, head of a private company that employs 60 people providing driver’s ed instruction in nine WNC school systems.

“Probably half of our faculty or staff is sitting idle right now,” he said.

“I get calls every day from parents: ‘What about my kids’ driving?’ ” Tipton said. “I feel like our kids are being held hostage by the General Assembly’s lack of a budget.”

Both Jackson and Buncombe schools said they are looking at the prospect of charging $300 per student for driver’s ed if the Senate position prevails.

Teacher assistants are taking tough hits as well in Western NC.

The General Assembly has steadily cut funding for teacher assistants in recent years. Jackson schools at first were able to use local money to keep from laying off assistants, but eventually Murray said he decided, “That is a bleeding wound that I can’t keep let happen,” and had to make adjustments.

Assistants now don’t work when school is not in session. Many also work in school lunchrooms or drive buses to piece together enough hours to be full-time employees.

More than 60 percent of school funding in North Carolina comes from the state. WNC school officials say local sources of funds have already been stretched to fill in for previous state funding shortfalls.

Scared off by the prospect of potentially losing their jobs each year, many TAs have left their jobs voluntarily in Yancey County.

Keeping assistants has already become more difficult than it should be because the General Assembly seems to argue every year over how many to pay for, Tipton said.

“Over the last six years, some of ours have left and said it’s just too disheartening” to wonder each summer whether they will have a job when school begins, he said.

Read the full story on the effects of the NCGA’s budget stalemate here.


This is what a second grade classroom looks like without a dedicated teacher assistant

Barbara Dell Carter

Second grade teacher Ms. Barbara Dell Carter

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.”


McCrory: Let local schools decide if they want teacher assistants


Gov. Pat McCrory at the NC Chamber’s 2015 Conference on Education

As House and Senate lawmakers continue to fight over whether or not to fully fund early grade classroom teacher assistants for the upcoming school year, Governor Pat McCrory told education advocates and members of the business community at a NC Chamber of Commerce conference on Thursday that he wants to get the entire debate out of Raleigh.

“What I refuse to do is to get into the debate on the state making the decision for each school,” McCrory said of the need for teacher assistants, which he believes should be in every first, second and third grade classroom.

“What I think we ought to do in the budget,” said McCrory, who added that he expressed his views strongly to legislative leadership Thursday morning, “is that I think we ought to give the same set amount of money with the necessary increases due to the increase in students in North Carolina and let the schools decide if you want [teacher] assistants, if you want more teachers, or if you want a combination of both.”

Senate and House lawmakers are staring down the sixth week of a budget stalemate, thanks in part to their inability to come to a decision on whether or not to fire 8,500+ TAs in order to reduce classroom sizes in the early grades. The Senate wants to cut TAs, while the House wants to keep them funded at last year’s levels.

Teacher assistants gathered in Raleigh Thursday morning to decry the possible cuts, according to WRAL.

With school starting in many areas within the next week or two, many local districts have begun laying off TAs or avoiding making new hires while lawmakers delay making final budget decisions.

Lawmakers have passed two temporary spending measures to keep government operations going while they negotiate a final budget, but the measures lack $25 million in teacher assistant funds that existed during the prior year, forcing some districts to make calls on staffing TAs before a final budget has even passed.

McCrory said Thursday that every school has different needs, and it should be up to the local superintendents and principals to decide whether or not they need teacher assistants.

“I want to give you [local districts] as much flexibility as possible,” said McCrory. “I want to provide enough money where if teacher assistants are needed, they can hire teacher assistants. If they don’t want the teacher assistants, then they can hire more teachers.”


School voucher proponents renew marketing efforts as lawmakers consider program’s expansion

Voucher-mailer-front and backThe push to get folks to sign up for North Carolina’s controversial school voucher program — now ruled constitutional by the state’s highest court — is back on with new mailers and a video encouraging parents to get a private school education for their child at the taxpayer’s expense as lawmakers consider expanding the program nearly two-fold for the upcoming year.

“NC Supreme Court rules YES! for OPPORTUNITY!” headlines a mailer sent out by school voucher proponent Parents for Educational Freedom NC (PEFNC), an organization dedicated to pushing school privatization efforts and bankrolled largely by the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart).

Directing parents to a website with their own name in the URL, families can use the mailers to look up whether or not they are eligible to receive $4,200 taxpayer-funded vouchers to use for private school tuition. The website includes a video of former NBA All Star and Tar Heel basketball player Antawn Jamison endorsing the program.

In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled last month to uphold the Opportunity Scholarship program, in spite of the fact that private schools have virtually no obligation to provide North Carolina students with even a basic education.

The move reversed a 2014 ruling finding the program to be unconstitutional. “The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood wrote at the time.

Those private schools, the majority of which are religious but can also include home schools that have just one student, are not subject to state standards relating to curriculum, testing and teacher certification and are free to accept or reject students of their own choosing, including for religious or other discriminatory reasons.

Now, parents are free to use state funds to send their children to private schools — and the school voucher program is likely to expand.

State lawmakers passed a 2013 budget that tagged $10 million in taxpayer dollars to be used for the Opportunity Scholarships beginning in 2014. The House’s 2015-17 budget proposal passed earlier this summer proposes expanding the school voucher program from $10 million to $17.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Senate’s proposal does the same as the House, but with recurring funds instead and for both years of the biennium.

With House and Senate lawmakers still hammering away behind closed doors at a 2015-17 final budget, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not the program could be expanded even further — stay tuned.


House votes against Senate’s proposal to move Office of Charter Schools out of DPI

Citing feelings that “DPI was never in love with charter schools,” last month Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) gutted a House bill penned by Rep. Charles Jeter (R-Mecklenburg) and used it to put forth his own bid to move the Office of Charter Schools out of the Department of Public Instruction and to the State Board of Education.

The House’s reaction to that chess move? A resounding ‘no.’

Rep. Jeter asked his fellow House members Tuesday not to concur with the Senate’s proposal—and they voted unanimously against concurrence, sending the bill to a conference committee to sort through the disagreement.

Tillman, who has previously expressed frustration over what he sees as too slow a pace to green light new charter schools, proposed not only moving the charter school office out of DPI, he also sought to tinker yet again with the advisory board that reviews new charter school proposals. Tillman’s version of HB 334 would strip the Governor of his ability to appoint the board’s chair and disallow a sitting State Board of Ed member from being part of the panel.

“We don’t want them ‘loving it up,’” said Tillman of the idea of current State Board of Education members serving on the charter advisory board. His proposal would relegate that person to serving as a nonvoting member and allow the State Board to instead appoint a “charter advocate” to serve.

Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake) objected to Tillman’s bid last month, raising concerns about the ability of the State Board of Education to exercise proper oversight and monitoring of charter schools.

For more background, read my story, “Senate bill proposes ending DPI control of charter school oversight.”