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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

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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.”

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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.

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.