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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

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.

Commentary

Two stories really symbolize the state of North Carolina state government this morning on the first day of Fiscal Year 2016:

The first is the gridlock that’s starting to grip the state’s public schools. With a final state budget agreement light years away and few clear indicators from state leaders as to where things are headed — other than perhaps slashing thousands of teacher assistants — Raleigh’s News & Observer reports this morning that “At least one-third of North Carolina’s school systems are suspending their driver’s education programs this summer until they learn whether they’ll receive any state money to help pay for the classes.”

Meanwhile, the second part of the story is crystallized in yesterday’s edition of the Fitzsimon File in which my colleague Chris Fitzsimon — who has closely observed North Carolina politics for the past three decades — explained how extraordinary the latest inaction by the General Assembly is:

“House and Senate leaders couldn’t meet their budget deadline of June 30, the end of the state fiscal year, so they approved a continuing budget resolution this week to give themselves 45 more days.

Next week they will be on vacation and two weeks after that many Republican lawmakers plan to be in San Diego for the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

It’s true, as supporters of the General Assembly have pointed out, that not having a final budget by June 30 is relatively common. Lawmakers have passed continuing resolutions many summers while they hashed out final budget details.

But the resolutions usually come after some effort at negotiations between House and Senate budget writers and the extensions are usually for 10 days or maybe two weeks, not a month and a half.

And there’s never been a case when lawmakers gave themselves 45 more days and promptly took the next week off. It’s especially noteworthy coming from Republicans, who promised a more transparent and efficiently run General Assembly when they won control of the House and Senate in the 2010 election.”

In short, state legislative leaders — who promised to “run government like a business” — are instead fiddling, Nero-like, while core state services they have already badly undermined crumble around them. All in all, it’s quite a mess. Perhaps the business they had in mind was Enron.

Happy Fiscal New Year!

News
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Teacher assistants ask Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville) to save their jobs

About a dozen teacher assistants from all over North Carolina came to the General Assembly Wednesday to tell lawmakers they’re not happy with the prospect of losing a significant chunk of their workforce thanks to a Senate budget proposal that eliminates more than 8,500 TAs from elementary school classrooms.

“It’s about the children and the future of North Carolina,” said teacher assistant Teresa Sawyer from Currituck County. “If you lose extra people in the classroom, what’s going to happen to these children?”

Senate lawmakers unveiled a budget this week that would rid North Carolina’s early grade classrooms of more than half of their state-funded teacher assistants.

TAs have been a target for state budget cuts for years—since 2008, the state has lost more than 7,000 of these instructional aides who also frequently double as bus drivers and first responders to medical emergencies.

Instead of providing enough funds to keep TAs in classrooms, Senate budget writers have proposed putting some funds instead toward hiring more teachers to reduce K-3 class sizes.

“It’s a good concept, because there is some research out there that says lower class sizes work better,” said North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants’ incoming president, William Johnston, “but [with the Senate budget proposal] you’ll get 2,000 more teacher positions and eliminate more than 8,000 TAs…you’re losing 6,000 sets of eyes to make sure that students get to where they need to be.”

“The safety of the children is being compromised,” added Johnston. “How are you going to cover lunch duty? How are kids going to get their medications?”

Others expressed concern over where the additional classes would be housed.

“Are they gonna give us money to create new construction?” wondered teacher assistant Lacy Autry. “In Robeson County, every one of our schools has three, four outside classrooms already. Where are you going to find room? We’ve taken janitorial supply closets to make classrooms. We just don’t have the room to reduce the sizes.”

Teacher assistants at the General Assembly on Wednesday also explained that a lot more is expected of them now than ever before, thanks to increased testing requirements and cuts to school nurses—and without their service, students will suffer.

“So if you don’t have that extra help in the classroom while teachers are pulling students out to work on testing requirements, children will just be doing a lot more busy work,” said TA Andrea Cranfill from Davie County.

And in Bladen County, the entire district has just four nurses to share among 13 schools.

“I’m the first responder in my school,” said Johnston. “We have a nurse maybe one day a week. So what happens the other four days a week if I’m not there?”

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TAs visit the office of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph)

Many TAs administer medications, serve on crisis response teams and even administer catheters and feeding tubes, according to those who came down to the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Senator Andrew Brock, a member of the Senate budget committee, seemed sympathetic to the TAs’ concerns.

“I’ve got some issues with that,” Sen. Brock said in response to the prospect of the state losing TAs.

The teacher assistants also visited the offices of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) and Senate budget writer Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville).

The Senate plans to pass a final budget this week, then set to work on a final compromise with the House this summer.

Watch TAs explain to Sen. Harry Brown’s staff the importance of keeping them in the classroom.

Commentary

Education cutsThis morning’s Winston-Salem Journal provides another example of how absurdly underfunded our public education system has gotten this morning in an editorial about the pay rates North Carolina maintains for teacher assistants.

Starting T.A. pay under the current state schedule works out by my back-of-the-envelope math to something on the order of around $12 an hour. There are plenty of chain restaurant servers who make more and this is well below the state’s living income standard. Stay on the job into middle age or retirement and you might eventually work your way up to $19 an hour.

As the Journal editorial reminds us, this is a preposterous way to treat the people entrusted with educating our children and a lousy way to attract quality employees. The editorial holds up the story of this year’s T.A. of the year — an amazing woman named Andrea Cranfill who has overcome her own disabilities to perform superhuman tasks working with challenged kids .

Cranfill’s service is clearly something akin to mission work performed at a great self-sacrifice. As admirable as this is, however, it shouldn’t have to be this way.  As any teacher will tell you, having a qualified and competent T.A. can make all the difference in transforming a classroom, or even a school itself.

So long as North Carolina is going to avoid the obvious solution of dramatically reducing class sizes to the point at which our teachers can have a reasonable shot at providing each child with the individualized attention each one deserves, the least we can do is pay our T.A.’s a living wage. Right now, we’re not even close.