News

The Fayetteville Observer took a closer look this weekend at how things will play out at local elementary schools if Cumberland County and surrounding areas are forced to cut hundreds of teacher assistants from classrooms in exchange for reducing class sizes.

Many say sacrificing TAs for smaller classes isn’t a good tradeoff.

“The perceived benefit of hiring more teachers would be minimal,” said Todd Yardis, Baldwin Elementary’s principal.

For one thing, he said, whenever the budget is approved, it will be after Baldwin’s school year has started. If the school then has to add classes to reduce class sizes, it would be chaotic for students and teachers alike, he said.

Yardis said mid- to late summer isn’t an ideal time to hire good teachers, especially if hundreds of other elementary schools in the state are also looking to hire. Most of the good teachers will already have landed jobs, he said.

“We’re having trouble finding teachers as it is,” he said.

Yardis doesn’t think smaller class sizes would alleviate the problems created by the loss of teacher assistants.

“The research says, and I’ve seen it myself, if you reduce class size by a few kids, it doesn’t change what the teacher does,” Yardis said. “If you’re talking to 20 kids, or 17 kids, the teacher is saying the same thing.”

But a teacher assistant can work one-on-one or in small groups with struggling children, freeing the teacher to teach the rest of the class.

“They’re really instructional assistants,” Yardis said. “Their number one job is to work with children.”

Yardis also said years ago, each classroom had more teacher assistants, which was especially important because many young children need intensive one-on-one support to succeed.

Senate lawmakers have proposed a 2015-17 budget that would cut more than 8,500 teacher assistants’ jobs in exchange for reducing class size.

The June 30 end of the fiscal year has already come to pass, and lawmakers passed a continuing resolution to keep state government operations running but failed to clarify what local school districts should expect when it comes to funding for teacher assistants.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools have already laid off 30 teacher assistants, and school officials hope that more layoffs aren’t on the horizon.

“We still have our fingers crossed that the compromise (budget) will not cut deeper than 110 positions,” Crutchfield said.

Crutchfield said the district would have to lay people off after they were already planning to report to work in August.

At Wednesday’s rally, teacher assistants across the state said they don’t know whether or not they’ll have a job in a month.

Diane Pfundstein, a retired teacher assistant who came back part-time at Mineral Springs Elementary School last year, said officials at her school said they’re not sure if there will be a job for her when school starts in August.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “There are so many issues now. Teachers need an extra person (in the classroom).”

The Associated Press reports that it’s the third year in a row that Senate and House leaders can’t agree on how to fund teacher aides. In the last seven years, lawmakers have reduced funding for state-funded TAs by 32 percent.

Brady Johnson, the Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent, said he doesn’t understand why what he called “draconian cuts” must continue given there was a $400 million budget surplus last year. Johnson said his district doesn’t have additional funds like larger systems to preserve his system’s 195 assistants should the Senate’s proposal prevail.

“Who’s going to monitor the children on the playground? Who’s going to walk them to the cafeteria?” said Johnson, the North Carolina Association of School Superintendents president.

Lawmakers return to Raleigh today to continue working on budget negotiations after a week long vacation.

News

The Department of Public Instruction’s budget chief told members of the State Board of Education Thursday that the number one issue local superintendents are wrestling with as they figure out how to fund their schools for the upcoming year is how to handle their teacher assistants.

“It is a very big problem for school districts to make a decision on how to start the school year,” said DPI’s Chief of Financial Operations Philip Price, who explained that any reductions to teacher assistants that result from final budget negotiations completed by the House and Senate in the coming weeks will be retroactive to July 1 and will leave school districts in a very tricky situation.

Budget writers in the Senate have signaled their intention to cut funding for teacher assistants significantly, eliminating more than 8,500 TA jobs over the next two year biennial budget period. The House, on the other hand, wishes to keep funding in place for TAs, setting up a for a fight that may end up being very similar to the one that took place last year.

Teacher assistants have been a target for budget writers for several years now. More than 7,000 teacher assistant jobs have been cut by lawmakers since 2009.

The General Assembly appears to be on track to head into the fall with its budget negotiations, leaving local school districts without a clear plan for how to fund classrooms and hire — or fire — teacher assistants and other classroom personnel.

The dollar difference between the House and Senate’s plans for funding TAs amounts to $195.6 million, Price told State Board of Ed members Thursday.

“Local school districts like Wake County have already started school in their year round tracks and so they’ve had to make some decisions related to how to address the teacher assistants,” said Price.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools have already laid off 30 TAs and warn that more might be coming.

“We still have our fingers crossed that the compromise (budget) will not cut deeper than 110 positions,” Crutchfield said of the 500 TAs that Winston Salem/Forsyth schools employes. Crutchfield, the district’s budget director, said the district would have to lay people off after they were already planning to report to work in August, according to the Winston Salem Journal.

The overall difference in the House and Senate’s budget plan for public schools, said Price, amounts to $342.6 million.

“That’s a major difference in money,” said Price. “[The General Assembly] has a pretty challenging job to do.”

In addition to TAs, Price noted the House and Senate’s other disagreements, which include how to handle driver’s education (the House restores funding, the Senate does not and eliminates the requirement for it in order to get a driver’s license), teacher salaries (House gives 4 percent raises across the board while the Senate focuses pay bumps on early career teachers) and whether or not to reduce classroom sizes by including more money to hire additional teachers (a Senate proposal).

“It’s going to be a rather lengthy, I’m afraid, in my humble opinion, discussion between the chambers and it will kick off pretty rapidly, I would imagine, next week,” said Price.

Lawmakers return to Raleigh on Monday after deciding to take a week long vacation, despite having missed their June 30 budget deadline.

News

In case you missed it, I have a story on our main site today that takes a look at how the now-defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges sold many students up a creek, including some North Carolina veterans who are saddled with big debts and worthless degrees and coursework.

In response to the story, one reader questioned on our Facebook page: Who accredited this scam?

That’s a great question.

So—when it comes to accrediting for-profit career colleges like Corinthian, here’s what I have learned.

Accrediting agencies that approve for-profit colleges also receive money from the very schools they are supposed to be holding accountable.

You read that correctly. The two national accrediting agencies that approved Corinthian schools—the Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)—each receive their funding in the form of fees from the schools they accredit.

At a congressional hearing in 2013, Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation compared this arrangement to some of the practices that have taken place on Wall Street.

“This is like bond ratings firms giving AAA ratings to mortgage-backed securities sold by the same firms that pay their fees,” Kevin Carey, the director of education policy at the New America Foundation, said at the hearing. “It does not work out well in the long run.”

Read More

News

WUNC’s Reema Khrais reports that North Carolina’s support for classroom textbooks has dwindled to rock bottom—and while you might figure that students would instead have access to comparable educational materials in the digital world, making that transition is not happening very quickly and comes at a steep cost.

Schools don’t have the money to buy books, Fairchild [DPI’s chief of textbook services] explains. He pulls out a calculator, and begins punching in numbers to see just how much less the state has invested in textbooks since 2008.

“Eighty percent.  Yeah, 80 percent [reduction],” he says.

Fairchild says that means the books aren’t keeping up with changing curriculums.

“I mean here we are saying that we’re preparing kids for a 21st century environment, and we’ve got books from 2004,” he exclaims.

In Orange County, schools rely on a local sales tax to fund personal computers for most students, calling them their “digital textbooks.” But that local school district is wealthier than most others in North Carolina that lack the resources to get students fully transitioned into a digital educational environment.

In Vance County, only some high and middle school students get their own laptops, and Ross [a Vance County instructional technology facilitator] says they need more money just to keep them up-to-date. Because the state isn’t giving enough, school officials rely on grants and local dollars, which means other areas in education have suffered. The district, for example, doesn’t have as many substitute teachers anymore.

“And that’s a sting. It seems minor, I’m sure to someone on the outside looking in, but you can tell,” she says. “We can tell.”

There’s another big hurdle when transitioning to digital. Amy Walker, director of technology at Ashe County schools, says about 75 percent of kids have internet access at home. So what about the other 25 percent?

“Exactly. And if you require for it to be digital, what are we going to do for those kids?”

North Carolina has until 2017 to get fully transitioned from textbooks to a digital environment. The House and Senate 2015-17 budget proposals both would boost funds for digital resources—but still not enough to fully make the transition for all, says Khrais.

Check out the full report online over at WUNC.

News

In response to a recent order stemming from a 20+ year old court case that requires all North Carolinian children to have access to a sound basic education, the State Board of Education submitted a plan with the court last week to address how it will ensure all students succeed academically — and that proposal includes the establishment of an interagency advisory committee tasked with seeking solutions to educating at-risk students.

From the News & Observer:

In its court filing, the State Board of Education proposed establishing an Interagency Advisory Committee on Public Education to discuss the challenges at-risk students face. A hearing on the Board’s plan, part of the lawsuit called Leandro, is scheduled for July 21-23 before Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.

For years, Manning has criticized persistently low-performing schools and districts. Much of the Board’s response is a catalog of existing teacher preparation and evaluation efforts and classroom practices.

According to the State Board’s filing with the court, the committee would comprise “representatives from key child-focused entities, such as: state agencies (DPI, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Public Safety – Juvenile Justice, etc.); local boards of education; local mental health organizations; private non-profits, including representatives from the charter school community; community colleges, universities and others.”

Those stakeholders would come together to review the challenges at-risk youth face that relate to poverty, health and safety and develop recommendations for the State Board of Education as well as other agencies in an effort to improve educational access.

In their 54-page plan, the State Board highlights the successes they’ve had in supporting low performing schools since the original 1997 Leandro ruling, emphasizing existing teacher preparation and evaluation programs as well as other classroom supports as a way forward in meeting their constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to all students.

But, according to the News & Observer, many of those school improvement efforts have largely been funded with federal Race to the Top funds, which are scheduled to dry up this year. While the House has included some funds to fill in the gap in its 2015-17 budget proposal, the Senate puts the onus on local school districts in its budget to fund those programs going forward.

With the establishment of an interagency advisory committee, the State Board emphasizes that the academic success of all students cannot be accomplished by public schools alone, and that the obligation rests with every state agency as well as the public at large.

Judge Manning will review the State Board’s plan at a hearing scheduled for July 21-23.

Read the State Board’s plan here: The Mandate To Provide An Opportunity For A Sound Basic Education, An Update and Recommendation.