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In case you missed it, WRAL’s Tyler Dukes had a good story this weekend sorting through whether or not teacher assistants have any positive effect at all in the classroom and whether the Senate’s proposal to cut 80 percent of TA jobs over the upcoming biennium is the state’s largest layoff in history.

The conclusion? Like most things, it’s complicated.

Decades-old research suggests TAs don’t help students in grades K-3 improve academically — but Michael Maher, a professor at NC State University, said it’s really hard to make that determination.

“Because students enter early grades at different levels of preparation, assistants typically allow teachers to provide instruction on a more individual level depending on a students’ needs.

“You can really, within the context of your classroom, have students working at different levels,” Maher said. “If I’m a single teacher, it’s much harder to do that.”

NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon spoke with Alamance-Burlington Schools’ chief Dr. Bill Harrison (who is also a former chair of the State Board of Education) this past weekend, who said in his experience TAs play a critical role in making sure students succeed—particularly for those students who have special needs or are English language learners.

“Probably in 90 percent of our elementary classrooms I visit I have to ask the principal which one is the teacher and which one is the teacher assistant,” said Harrison, who was away from the classroom for more than five years as he served on the State Board of Ed and has observed a big change in the role of the TA during that time.

“That additional help has become critical,” added Harrison.

(Click above to listen to Fitzsimon interview Dr. Harrison on News & Views)

Senate lawmakers want to take some of the money for TAs to reduce class sizes — an idea that in theory lots of folks seem to support—but making the jump from TAs to smaller classes at the end of the school year, or even after the school year begins, may prove to be a logistical nightmare.

“We don’t have the classroom space to reduce class size, plus at that time of the year I don’t think we’ll be able to find the teachers that we need,” said Harrison.

As for whether or not stripping classrooms of TAs to the tune of 8,500+ jobs over two years amounts to the state’s largest layoff in history — well, that’s a little unclear, but it seems to rank up there according to the WRAL report.

DPI’s chief financial officer Philip Price told WRAL that kind of comparison isn’t useful, however, when you consider the ballooning student enrollment the state is dealing with.

Since the 2008-09 academic year, the state has seen 43,749 more students enroll in public schools that have seen several years of cuts. In that period, North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants Secretary Melinda Zarate said, the state lost 7,000 teacher assistants.

“What’s happened is a dramatic reduction in the adults in the school building,” Price said. “This is just adding to a pretty heinous situation.”

Click here to read WRAL’s full report on teacher assistants.

News

If local school boards need a way to hold county commissions accountable when it comes to providing sufficient local funds for schools, they may soon lose a key feather in their hats — the ability to sue.

Senate lawmakers passed an amended House bill Wednesday that strips local school boards of their ability to sue the county in the event they believe the commissioners should provide more local funds for the district’s schools.

Similar to a bill that was defeated in the House earlier in the legislative session, NC School Boards Association lobbyist Leanne Winner says the current measure would change the dynamic in local communities when it comes to negotiating local budgets.

“School boards are the only elected body in North Carolina that doesn’t have ability to raise its own revenue,” said Winner. “School boards are also the body to which the state has given responsibility to provide the opportunity for children to receive a sound basic education. If a school board doesn’t have resources necessary to do that, there has to be some kind of mechanism available to be able to deal with those financial issues.”

Senator Dan Soucek (R-Watauga) amended HB 561 quietly on the Senate floor Tuesday to strip the school boards of their power to sue county commissions for the next five years, citing a need for a “cooling off period” between local governments and school boards. Other supporters of the bill say it’s a waste of money for counties to sue themselves.

In 2013, the Union County school board sued the county over a budget dispute which resulted in a $91 judgment that was overturned by an appellate court.

Winner says it’s important for school boards to have the possibility of litigation as a negotiating tactic when working on a local budget.

“While the process is not used very often, the notion that it exists helps bring people to the table to to do more for their community,” said Winner.

Without a way to push county commissions to sufficiently fund public schools, local school boards will have to rely even more on the state’s coffers to fulfill their constitutional requirement to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education for all.

North Carolina has seen state-funded per pupil investment fall considerably over the past several years. Since 2008, per pupil funding has dropped nearly 15 percent according to the Center on Budget and Public Policy, ranking among the lowest in the nation.

The Senate version of the bill must now go back to the House for concurrence. Given House lawmakers’ defeat of a similar measure earlier this session, it’s unclear if a second attempt will prove successful.

News

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.

 

News

Private charter school operators that include for-profit companies could be in line to inherit low-performing schools in North Carolina, prompting changes that could result in mass firings of teachers and staff at some of the state’s most struggling schools.

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg)

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg)

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) is pushing a bill that would pull five of the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools out of their local school districts and put them into a state-controlled ‘achievement school district.’

This new achievement district would be able to fire all teachers and staff and enter into five year contracts with private charter school management companies to handle the schools’ operations.

“I don’t think perpetually failing schools are acceptable,” said Bryan, who described the draft proposal as a small pilot only open to charter school operators with experience in serving turnaround schools.

A draft version of the legislation that was obtained by N.C. Policy Watch is inserted into a gutted Senate Bill 95, which originally directed local boards of education to adopt performance-based reduction in force (RIF) policies.  (Read the new bill at the end of this post)

Modeled after similar efforts in Memphis, New Orleans and in other locales, the concept of an achievement school district has met considerable push back by teachers, politicians and the general public in those areas. [For more background, read my story from Wednesday titled “Is North Carolina next in line for New Orleans-style takeovers of failing schools?] Read More

News

Governor Pat McCrory’s education advisor, Eric Guckian, is leaving his job at the end of July to serve in a leadership role for a national organization dedicated to transforming Teach for America alums into leaders.

In a Tuesday afternoon press release, McCrory’s office touted education-related accomplishments it said Guckian’s guidance was key to making happen.

“During his tenure with Governor McCrory, Guckian was instrumental in helping pass one of the largest teacher raises in the state’s history which provided an average salary increase of seven percent and raised the base pay for beginning teachers,” read the statement, along with a list of other education initiatives in which Guckian played a role.

Guckian will join the Leadership for Educational Equity as a Vice President for Alliances. The organization is dedicated to transforming Teach for America corps members and alumni into leaders.

Guckian is a former TFA corps member himself, having served in New York City and as a teacher and as executive director of Teach for America, North Carolina.

Guckian’s last day as McCrory’s education advisor is July 31. A new education advisor is expected to be announced “in the near future.”