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school-busespng-91b35e2c325e0b5bWhile we’ve heard plenty of back and forth already about teacher pay in 2016, there’s been very little open discussion of teacher assistants. Given the legislature’s propensity for slashing T.A. jobs in the last few years, that silence might be a blessing, some would say.

But yesterday on EdNC, Kerry Crutchfield, longtime budget director for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, authored a fascinating piece on North Carolina’s annual debate over teacher assistants. Often viewed as a less measurable component of public education, teaching assistants have frequently found themselves on the chopping block.

But Crutchfield argues state lawmakers are making some serious errors, including relying on old data that predates 2001’s No Child Left Behind Law, which seemed to indicate no measurable improvement in student academics produced by a teacher assistant. As Crutchfield notes, that law included major qualification upgrades for classroom teaching assistants.

Crutchfield goes on to make a series of recommendations for lawmakers if teaching assistants return to the forefront this year, taking special care to argue how essential such positions are in kindergarten classrooms.

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N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

Legislators visit schools all the time, and as a longtime reporter, I can tell you that it’s typically uneventful stuff.

But here’s a fairly interesting report from Wednesday’s Wilkes Journal-Patriot of N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore’s visit this week to an elementary school in Wilkes County, during which the speaker apparently got a chance to view a teacher assistant lead the classroom.

Given the job scares TAs have withstood in recent years, including last year’s hotly contested Senate proposal to ax 8,500 TA jobs, Moore’s visit is relevant.

According to the Journal-Patriot, Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, was visiting the school as part of a tour to assess the value of North Carolina’s new letter grading system for assessing school performance.

Locals hoped to make the case for amending the grading system, claiming it focuses too much on testing performance and not on student growth. We can expect this will be a topic of interest when the General Assembly reconvenes in April.

However, according to the paper, one of the tour’s most interesting moments came when Moore watched a TA at work. Education advocates often tout the value of teacher assistants, employees who often juggle multiple classrooms tasks for very moderate pay, yet TA positions are often on the cutting block during budget negotiations.

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Commentary

TeachersIn case you missed it, yesterday’s lead editorial in the Fayetteville Observer did a fine job of summing up the continuing war on public school teachers being waged by the state’s political leadership:

After decrying the large teacher shortages that plague school systems across the state and some recent national surveys that put the state at the bottom of the pack for its treatment of teachers (and which also describe a decade-long spiral in North Carolina) , the editorial says this:

“Add to that the legislative dismantling of the state’s teacher-assistant program, lawmakers’ assault on the association that is a weak version of a teachers union, and an attempt to end teachers’ also-flimsy tenure rights, and it’s easy to see why they’re wearing out the exit door.

A pay raise for new teachers, hiking their starting salary to $35,000, may help attract talent to North Carolina schools, but it won’t keep them here for long, because more experienced teachers have made little or no salary headway.

That 10-year trend should be a reminder, too, that the decline in teacher salaries – from around the national median to something approaching the bottom of the barrel – is a bipartisan exercise. It started while Democrats controlled the legislative and executive branches, then was pushed along by the Republicans when they took over.

Our lawmakers can pursue all the educational reform in the world, but it won’t work until we can attract and keep good teachers. We’ll do that when we boost salaries back to the national median.

Let’s be clear: Without a great K-12 education system, most of our other goals are out of reach. And without good, well-paid teachers in our classrooms, our education initiatives will fail.”

Click here to read the entire editorial.

Commentary

Today is the first day of the 2015-16 school year in lots of places throughout North Carolina and editorial pages across the state this past weekend welcomed back the return of teachers and students with some harsh words for the political powers that be.

The Winston-Salem Journal minced no words in an editorial entitled “Teacher shortage: Legislature must end the brain drain”:

“North Carolina once concentrated on providing the best public education it could. But in the first years of the 21st century, Democratic leaders lagged in funding for education. The Republicans have been harder on it.

Some Republicans seem to have made a point of bad-mouthing teachers and the teaching profession. That doesn’t create an atmosphere in which they feel appreciated.

And the legislature has taken more concrete steps to diminish the teaching profession by eliminating the teaching fellows program and stipends for advanced degrees. Right now, as the legislature fumbles around with its budget, teacher assistants hang in limbo, not knowing if they’ll have jobs once the dust settles. Teachers had to take the state to court earlier this year just to retain tenure status.

And despite some movement toward raising salaries, our teachers continue to be underpaid for the important work they do.

Texas and other states have come to North Carolina to recruit new teachers, knowing they can offer better deals. And many teachers have accepted.

Who pays for this backward motion? The students, initially, and then our communities, which wind up with less-educated members and a less-educated workforce that fails to attract the jobs of the future.

Education is the best predictor of future success. If the legislature really wants to bring in new companies and jobs, it would recognize that instead of shortchanging our teachers, our students and our future.”

Here’s the Fayetteville Observer reminding us that the ideological driven move to rewrite the Common Core standards will be very expensive:

“The Academic Standards Review Commission has released some of its preliminary reports on how to revise teaching standards for math and English.

In addition to its curriculum recommendations, the commission added this: Once the revisions are made, the schools will need money for new teaching materials, including textbooks, and a sufficient number of teachers and teacher assistants to carry out the job.

The budget that lawmakers are negotiating doesn’t have that money in it. The Senate, in fact, wants to get rid of at least 8,500 teacher assistants and hire about 3,300 new teachers for lower grades.

We might indeed end up with better schools if the review commission’s advice is heeded. But we need to remember that the Common Core pushback was purely political, rooted in the canard that it’s a federal takeover of education. It’s not. The standards were developed by educators. And they are widely supported by business and the military. Can we really afford this exercise in the politics of education?”

And finally, the Wilmington Star News put it this way in a piece entitled “Let’s support our teachers”:

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“I feel like our kids are being held hostage by the General Assembly’s lack of a budget.”

That’s the word from Yancey County Schools’ superintendent Tony Tipton, who says that lawmakers’ failure to reach a deal on a two year state budget means students haven’t been able to learn how to drive over the summer.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times:

The other big wild card in school funding this year is whether the state will continue paying for driver’s education classes. The Senate budget would eliminate funding and the House would continue it.

That has left many WNC school officials reluctant to continue their driver’s ed programs past the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year June 30 for fear that they would have to pay all of the cost with local funds.

Some systems stopped classroom instruction but allowed students who had completed classwork to get in their time behind the wheel. Others just halted their programs altogether, said Lee Roy Ledford, head of a private company that employs 60 people providing driver’s ed instruction in nine WNC school systems.

“Probably half of our faculty or staff is sitting idle right now,” he said.

“I get calls every day from parents: ‘What about my kids’ driving?’ ” Tipton said. “I feel like our kids are being held hostage by the General Assembly’s lack of a budget.”

Both Jackson and Buncombe schools said they are looking at the prospect of charging $300 per student for driver’s ed if the Senate position prevails.

Teacher assistants are taking tough hits as well in Western NC.

The General Assembly has steadily cut funding for teacher assistants in recent years. Jackson schools at first were able to use local money to keep from laying off assistants, but eventually Murray said he decided, “That is a bleeding wound that I can’t keep let happen,” and had to make adjustments.

Assistants now don’t work when school is not in session. Many also work in school lunchrooms or drive buses to piece together enough hours to be full-time employees.

More than 60 percent of school funding in North Carolina comes from the state. WNC school officials say local sources of funds have already been stretched to fill in for previous state funding shortfalls.

Scared off by the prospect of potentially losing their jobs each year, many TAs have left their jobs voluntarily in Yancey County.

Keeping assistants has already become more difficult than it should be because the General Assembly seems to argue every year over how many to pay for, Tipton said.

“Over the last six years, some of ours have left and said it’s just too disheartening” to wonder each summer whether they will have a job when school begins, he said.

Read the full story on the effects of the NCGA’s budget stalemate here.