Education

Budget negotiations update: Teacher assistants find themselves at the center of the battle over teacher pay

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Lawmakers continued to face an impasse in budget talks this week by fighting over whether to ditch teacher assistants in the state’s elementary classrooms as a way to pay for teacher salary increases.

Senate budget writers pitched a new plan on Tuesday that would still give teachers an 11 percent raise, as they proposed previously, but that would also get rid of the requirement that forces teachers to give up tenure protections.

Their plan, however, still lays off more than 7,000 teacher assistants, leaving second and third grade classrooms without much needed instructional support.

“What the Senate is trying to do,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, who defended the Senate budget offer in public budget talks Tuesday afternoon, “is find another model, and that is upgrade the quality of the teacher. If you look at the big picture, teacher assistants really haven’t functioned as well as people keep bragging about.”

House lawmakers made it clear, however, that they don’t want to budge on continued support for TAs. Rep. Nelson Dollar opened Wednesday morning’s budget talks by introducing superintendents and educators to speak about the impact on students of laying off teacher assistants.

“This is a meeting of conferees to discuss differences in the budget,” said Sen. Harry Brown, who objected to hearing input from frontline educators during the budget debate, sparking fellow Senators to walk out of the meeting en masse as remaining House members and lone Senator Dan Blue stayed on to hear from those who came to Raleigh to advocate for TAs.

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Until this week, lawmakers were considering two budget proposals for 2015. Under the House plan, to which the Governor also signed on, teachers would receive a five percent average salary increase, the first meaningful pay bump in six years.

But House members wanted to pay for it with lottery funds – a hotly contested notion that Senate lawmakers have objected to on the grounds that lottery funding projections are too unpredictable.

The House also included “truth in advertising” language in the budget that is intended to make lottery players more aware of their slim chances of winning, thereby making it hard to realize greater revenues from an increased advertising budget.

The Senate has been pushing its proposal to give teachers an 11 percent raise, but until this week that hike would have come at a steep cost to teachers, who would have had to give up their tenure, or due process protections, to get raises.

On Tuesday, the Senate finally let go of that provision in its latest budget proposal, allowing teachers who are tenured to keep that status. But the philosophy on the role of teacher assistants was clear: get rid of them.

“There are lots of studies out there that look at teacher assistants and what kind of impact it has on student results. And most of them, if not all of them, will tell you that it has very little to do with student results,” said Sen. Harry Brown, who supports giving teachers an 11 percent pay raise by eliminating teacher assistants in the second and third grades.

Senate leader Phil Berger recently defended his plan to cut funds for teacher assistants to pay for teacher salary increases by $233 million, eliminating roughly 7,400 jobs. He justified the move by pointing to a study by researchers in the United Kingdom who looked at the effectiveness of teacher assistants – but in the context of small classroom sizes.

The authors of that study took issue with Berger using their data to justify eliminating TAs in classrooms that are larger and in need of classroom support.

“Getting rid of TAs is actually going to cause schools far more problems than it will solve,” said Ron Webster, author of the study who is at the University of London.

House lawmakers brought superintendents from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cumberland and Dare counties, as well as a principal and teacher to speak on the impact of laying off teacher assistants.

Charlotte-Mecklenberg Superintendent Heath Morrison, who faces firing more than 800 teacher assistants in his district, explained to budget writers that getting rid of TAs would have a negative impact on the success of the state’s Read to Achieve legislation, which requires all third grade students to be proficient in reading in order to move on to the fourth grade.

Morrison also noted the layoffs’ economic impact.

“If we have to lay off 817 teacher assistants…that’s 817 teacher assistants who would need unemployment and health insurance…we don’t think that’s a good return on investment,” said Morrison.

Franklin County third grade teacher Becky Bishop told lawmakers having a teacher assistant for even 40 minutes in her classroom increases her productivity considerably.

“During those 40 minutes, magic happens,” said Bishop, who estimated that her productivity increases by an hour and a half each day thanks to the presence of a TA.

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After the educators’ presentations, Senators that had walked out on budget talks trickled back in. Sen. Jerry Tillman made it clear he wasn’t pleased with the House’s latest budget offer, which moved some numbers around but made no compromises with the Senate.

“This budget plan is barely worth the ink it took to print this thing,” said Tillman, visibly annoyed.

In his remarks, Sen. Brown appeared to begin to budge on the teacher assistant issue—if the House promised to make some concessions somewhere.

“We can be here ‘til Christmas if you want to,” said Brown.

Lawmakers concluded budget talks Wednesday afternoon amid holiday wreaths and stockings strategically placed around the appropriations meeting room.

Before adjourning for the day, the House finally agreed to one concession – they promised to give up the extra $29.5 million on the table in anticipated lottery revenue from increased advertising.

Stay tuned to see where the budget debate heads next.

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com

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