Barbara Dell Carter is not a social worker. Nor is she a nurse, psychotherapist, nutritionist or a special needs educator.
Carter is a second grade teacher. But in today’s classrooms in North Carolina, she’s expected to take on much more than planning lessons and teaching her students.
“And the needs of our students are just getting greater and greater,” said Carter, who teaches at Beaufort County’s John Cotten Tayloe Elementary School in Eastern North Carolina.
Carter says she and her colleagues must routinely assist students who have profound needs – emotional, academic and medical – even though they generally lack the training or resources to adequately address them.
As for the training they have received on addressing medical emergencies, Carter said, “We’ve watched some videos.”
Teachers must be able to react quickly to students experiencing complications associated with diabetes and asthma because the school shares one nurse with the two other elementary schools in the district. The nurse is at Tayloe just two days a week.
When Carter began her teaching career nearly 20 years ago, there were more programs available to identify students who needed focused interventions and to give them the one-on-one instruction they needed.
“Those programs have gone away,” said Carter, who says she sees bigger academic gaps than ever before — especially in terms of students’ abilities to read proficiently.
“At this point, my greatest concern for the future is that with the diversity of kids we’re dealing with, how will we ever meet their needs with limited resources – and all by ourselves in the classroom?” said Carter.
For the fifth year in a row, Carter is flying solo in a classroom of 20-plus students, save for a handful of hours a week. That’s because lawmakers in Raleigh have been cutting funds for early-grade teacher assistants for more than five years, along with many other line items in the public schools budget. Today there are 7,000 fewer teacher assistants employed by the state than there were in 2008.
Funding for education absorbed a sharp cut when North Carolina and other states scrambled to balance budgets in response to the 2008 recession. Between 2008 and 2010, the economic collapse resulted in a drop of $1.2 billion in state tax revenue, forcing the then-Democratic leadership to cut nearly every line item of the state budget.
Public education, a sector that accounts for about half of the state’s spending plan (higher education included) was not spared. Between fiscal 2008, the peak year of spending for K–12 education, and fiscal 2011, total state funding for public schools was cut by about $1.04 billion when adjusted for inflation, according to the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.
Since then, the economy has recovered significantly, but state spending on education has not. And that is reflected in the disappearance of teacher assistants and in schools left scrambling for supplies, textbooks and professional development for their educators.
Overall spending on public education is rising modestly year to year, but not in a way that keeps pace with growing enrollment. For the 2015–16 school year, nearly 76,000 more students are attending public schools than in 2008.
Philip Price, chief financial officer for the state’s public schools, broke it down this way in late 2014:
“If you back out the funding added for benefit-cost increases and salary adjustments, the funding available for classroom activities (textbooks, transportation, teacher assistants, teachers, etc.) has been reduced by over $1 billion,” since 2008–09.
In the 2013–15 biennial budget, the legislature’s allocation for public schools was more than $100 million below what the state budget office recommended as necessary to maintain the status quo and more than $500 million less (adjusted for inflation) than what was spent on public education in 2008.
And the new budget for 2015–17 continues that trend with investments that remain well below 2008 pre-recession levels, spending roughly $500 less per student. In 2014, North Carolina ranked 47th in the nation in per-student spending.
Big employers looking to establish themselves in North Carolina never used to question the state’s commitment to investing in public schools – but now they are, said Keith Poston, the N.C. Public School Forum’s executive director.
Poston said people from out of state are now asking him more frequently, “What’s going on with your education system? It seems like you’re taking a step back.”
Classroom resources dwindle
J.C. Tayloe Elementary lost most of its teacher assistants as a result of the 2011 budget decisions. An instructional support first envisioned by former Gov. Jim Hunt, teacher assistants (often known as TAs) give students individual help in reading or math, make sure students with special needs receive focused instruction and keep the classroom free from disruptions. And they are especially important now that classroom size limits have been eliminated by state lawmakers.
Tayloe’s principal, Bubs Carson, now must spread six TAs out around his building, each covering four or five classrooms in a day. They now spend maybe an hour in each room, giving teachers short bathroom breaks, quickly working with students who need one-on-one help the most, then moving on to the next room.
“Students just no longer receive the one-on-one assistance they used to get in years past,” Carson said.
Staffing isn’t the only dwindling resource in the classroom — so are classroom supplies. Carter and other teachers dip into their own pockets to buy supplies and to meet emergency student needs. Carter said she typically spends $500 to $600 a year. Compared with 2008, the state has reduced the public schools’ classroom supplies budget by 52 percent.
Beaufort County is mostly rural with a large number of poor residents. At Tayloe, 77 percent of the students qualify for subsidized lunches.
“Often when children come to my classroom, they are hungry,” Carter said. “They need to be fed before they can think about reading comprehension. And I don’t know how many children come to school who are sleeping three or four to a bed. And maybe one sibling wets the bed. So they come to school hungry, tired and wearing yesterday’s clothes, sometimes soaked with urine.”
“Let me be clear,” added Carson, the school’s principal. “Our teachers have been back and forth to that Wal-Mart across the street purchasing their own supplies for their classrooms.”
Every teacher at her school, Carter speculates, has bought clothing for students at one time or another or taken a child to get cleaned up and fed so they can learn. It’s a combination of teachers’ own money, whatever support the PTA can lend and church donations that foots the bill.
Perhaps recognizing that their budget cuts have made it impossible to have the necessary resources on hand, in 2011 lawmakers enacted a tax credit for teachers who purchased classroom supplies out of their own pockets. They eliminated that credit in 2013, only to reinstate it this year.
Goodbye textbooks and electives
The effects of North Carolina’s shift from being a state known for its investments in public education to one that ranks behind states such as Mississippi and South Carolina in per-student spending are painfully clear to Roosevelt Alston, who retired this year from his job as principal of Bunn Middle School in Franklin County.
The days of taking home a textbook to study, for example, are long gone. “We try to keep classroom sets [of textbooks] on hand,” said Alston, whose school is in rural Franklin County, “but there is no money for new textbook adoption.”
In 2010, the recession forced the legislature, then still led by Democrats, to nearly zero out spending on new textbooks; the allocation dropped to less than $3 million from the previous year’s $121 million. It was intended to be a temporary measure.
But since then, the legislature has largely left that large hole in place. There were some modest year-to-year increases to the textbook budget, and lawmakers have budgeted a significant increase for the next two years. But the total is still less than half of what it was in 2010, which leaves some classrooms with outdated textbooks or none at all. Many teachers rely on handouts — and often have to pay the copying costs themselves.
Myra Bridgers, an eighth grade language arts teacher who has been teaching for more than 20 years in Franklin County schools, said the past few years have been the worst she’s seen in terms of budget cuts.
One casualty of lawmakers’ decision to disinvest in public education, Bridgers said, is too few classes for students to take. “Sometimes students take PE [physical education] or computer classes twice or even three times in one day. We just can’t afford more teachers to teach the extra classes we need.”
At Bunn, no one is available to teach any foreign languages; the only option is to take the classes online through the state’s virtual public schools.
“Parents always ask, is this all you got to offer?” Alston said.
Remediation falls by the wayside
Alston came to Bunn Middle School in 2008, intent on transforming it from a low-performing school to a place where students excelled. He implemented a strong remediation program for struggling students. Children with learning difficulties were identified early in the school year, and then Alston hired teachers to stay after school to work with them. He even hired drivers to get the children home on activity buses after they got extra help. Bunn also had a full-time summer school remediation program, complete with breakfast, lunch and buses.
In just five years, Bunn’s performance composite, which is based on end-of-grade test scores, increased from the low 60th percentile up to the 81st percentile.
But the school’s remediation program was slowly whittled down by budget cuts, then eliminated altogether. Students who need extra help now must rely on the good will of teachers who are not compensated for any extra time they can devote to students.
There’s no turnaround in sight. For fiscal 2015, state lawmakers cut funding for at-risk student services programs by more than $9 million.
It’s a perplexing scenario given that Senate leader Phil Berger recently pushed reforms aimed at improving the achievement of underperforming students. Policies contained in Berger’s Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013 require schools to do better at remediating students who don’t read proficiently. The law also sanctioned an A-F school grading scheme that punishes schools whose students don’t perform well on standardized tests.
Without the funds and resources necessary to accomplish these end goals, the desired results appear to be very difficult to achieve.
Falling back on the community
The resources keep dwindling as the needs grow ever greater, but Barbara Carter remains an exuberant and upbeat presence in her second-grade classroom at J.C. Tayloe. She’s an experienced professional who cares about her work and about the children.
Still, she said, it’s harder to give the children the attention they need without more help from a teacher assistant. “I’m just left to believe that the current leadership just doesn’t support public education,” she said.
Principal Carson said that the school will continue to rely on the goodwill of the community to try to fill in the gaps left by state lawmakers.
“First United Methodist Church has adopted this school through the ‘Hand in Hand’ program for more than 10 years,” said Carson. “Through their generosity, that church gives us money so that if a child has a hole in his shoe or needs decent clothes, we can go out and get what the child needs.”
The local church also provides hungry children with food on the weekends as well as books, classroom supplies and other necessities Carson identifies. Yet while the community support is welcome and deeply appreciated, it remains hard to replace what’s perhaps most desperately needed — more staff, more instructional assistance and more academic interventions.
Carter wants the state’s leaders to better understand how costly it is to disinvest in public education.
“I offer my classroom,” she said, “to any lawmaker willing to spend some real time here to see the gaps for him or herself.”