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North Carolina law currently requires only kindergarteners to get physicals in order to enroll in public schools — but a bill moving through the General Assembly could soon require health assessments for all newly enrolled students in grades K-12, and failure to do so could mean some kids miss out on classroom instruction.

Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) introduced the bill, HB 13, to Senators in a health committee Tuesday, explaining that the most common feedback he received from constituents about requiring physicals for all students was “you mean we’re not already doing that?”

There’s a presumption that other states also require their students to get physicals when they enter kindergarten, said Torbett, perhaps serving as a rationale for why the state doesn’t currently require health assessments from new students entering higher grades.

If students don’t get physicals within sixty days of the first day of school, the proposed law would bar students from going to school until fulfilling the proposed requirement. Language in the original proposal left the door open for those absences to count as suspensions on a student’s record, but House lawmakers amended the bill to avoid that scenario, including language that would allow students to make up coursework and tests during their time away from the classroom.

Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) questioned what processes would be put into place to work with parents who may have trouble understanding the proposed law.

“In some cases, parents are illiterate,” said Sen. Robinson. “What is in place in the school system to get out to that parent to make sure…that parent can read it and understand and then follow up?”

Legislative staff said there are currently a number of opportunities for follow-up with parents of kindergarteners who fail to comply with the proposed law, but did not identify ways in which the state works with those who are illiterate or non-English speaking.

Approved by the Senate Health committee, the bill will next be considered by members of the  Senate Education/Higher Education committee.

 

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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.

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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.

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“They’ve already taken away longevity pay, master’s degree pay, and tenure…and now they’re taking away retirement health insurance,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ vice president Mark Jewell on Monday.

“The General Assembly is saying to educators thinking of working in North Carolina: please look somewhere else. We don’t want long-term educators in our state,” said Jewell.

Senate lawmakers buried deep in their budget proposal earlier this month a provision that would end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016. [Click here for the full story.]

NCAE’s Jewell is concerned about the provision’s implications when it comes to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

“Under this provision—if it becomes law—teachers would have to work much later, until they can receive Medicare benefits,” said Jewell. “Or they would have to take another job once they retire to get some kind of health insurance benefit until they qualify for Medicare.”

“We have a lot of teachers retiring coupled with a large decrease in participation in teacher education programs at the university system — enrollments have fallen 27 percent since 2010,” Jewell added. “So it looks like we have a big teacher shortage ahead.”

As the cost of college soars, students are reaching a tipping point when it comes to how much debt they’re willing to take on in order to enter the teaching profession, according to NC State University’s assistant dean for teacher education, Michael Maher.

“We have students who are graduating with degrees in math and engineering making $70,000,” said Maher. “So there becomes this issue of debt load—students say ‘only if I am going to make a good salary can I take on more debt.'”

Maher, who was a high school teacher during the mid-1990s, said the teaching profession was once an attractive prospect thanks to the overall benefits package that teachers were once guaranteed.

“I thought it was great,” said Maher of teaching. “I had access to the state’s retirement system and a guarantee of good health benefits upon retirement. Now out of pocket expenses are increasing, premiums are rising, and salaries are not going up, and now this…so what’s the advantage now?”

Maher noted that the Senate’s proposal to slash health retirement benefits affects UNC faculty, too, making it difficult to retain top notch professors were the provision to become law.

Tacey Miller, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who graduated earlier this year and just secured a job as a third grade teacher in Onslow County, said she continues to be surprised by the General Assembly’s actions.

“So much has happened with the education system in North Carolina that nothing should surprise me anymore,” said Miller. “But something like [eliminating health retirement benefits] comes out in the news and I just think, why? Where are they redistributing this money, then? Even if they reduce class sizes, you still need actual classrooms to teach the kids.”

“It just seems like we’re making it harder for people to be teachers,” said Miller.

The House and Senate are expected to spend the rest of the summer—and possibly part of the fall—hammering out a final 2015-17 budget deal—stay tuned to see if the elimination of health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center, Women and the Economy

One of the most pressing concerns for any working family with children in North Carolina is to figure out a child care arrangement for children that allows parents to work and provide for their family, and allows children to learn and grow in a safe and stimulating setting when not in parental care. This is especially challenging because of the high cost of child care, as noted in these recently released state fact sheets by Child Care Aware of America. There are a few options available for families who earn low to moderate wages including the child care subsidy program which provides financial assistance to working families who need help paying for child care. Unfortunately this critical building block that makes life work for working families has been crumbling due to recent policy decisions by North Carolina lawmakers.

In our newest edition of Prosperity Watch, we feature a report released this month by NC Child detailing the impact made by child care subsidy policy changes passed by North Carolina lawmakers last year. These changes amounted to the loss of financial assistance for thousands of North Carolina families, including reducing income eligibility levels to qualify for the program, elimination of prorated fees for part-time child care (meaning many families will no longer be able to afford care), as well as counting income of a non-parent relative caregiver like a grandparent against the child’s eligibility for subsidies.

The map below provides a county by county breakdown of the more than 6,000 children who have lost or will lose access to child care subsidies from the change to the income eligibility provision alone.

PW 50-4

 

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