Teacher assistants hold breath as state legislators discuss budget cuts

Their jobs depend on the budget, and the NC House and Senate both want to make cuts

lbonner@newsobserver.comJuly 12, 2013 

— Angela Lewis prepared for a new class of kindergarteners at Barwell Road Elementary this week under a cloud of job insecurity.

The summer months often bring worry to teacher assistants as the legislature contemplates budgets that could cost them their jobs.

In 2011, Wake County cut teacher assistants’ hours to save money. This year, the Wake Board of Education is talking about layoffs that could cost hundreds of teacher assistant positions, including four of the 10 at Barwell Road.

Lewis, a single parent with one child left at home, says she handles the job uncertainty with prayer. She has a part-time restaurant job that brings in extra income, but prefers being in the classroom.

“This is where my passion is,” she said.

Wake hasn’t told any they may lose their jobs, but some districts are preparing for classroom cuts. Cabarrus County, for example, notified more than 100 teacher assistants they could be laid off.

The state began putting teacher assistants in classrooms in first through third grades in the late 1970s. They were called reading aides then, and were part of then-Gov. Jim Hunt’s primary reading program.

The state calls them teacher assistants now, their jobs have expanded, and they’re now assigned to kindergarten classes. Some work with special education students; others help in school media centers. They are on carpool lines and handle bus duty. Over the decades, they’ve become embedded in school operations.

But their numbers have declined over the years as the elementary school population has jumped, and not all K-3 teachers still have assistants in their classrooms.

The Senate budget takes a whack out of the funds that go to pay for teacher assistants, cutting more than $142.3 million and leaving money for them only in kindergarten and first grade. With a cut of $24.6 million, the House budget proposes to take a smaller chunk from teacher assistant spending. Teacher assistants are 7.5 percent of the state’s public education budget.

The Senate budget would eliminate 4,580 teacher assistant jobs, according to the state Department of Public Instruction, while the House budget would cost 790 jobs.

Last year, 24,400 teacher assistants worked in public schools, with 17,579 paid with state money. The Senate budget would cut about a quarter of the teacher assistant positions.

On average, statewide, teacher assistants working 10 months a year make a little more than $21,250. In Wake, these classroom workers are called instructional assistants, their salaries range from $18,000 to $24,700, and they work a little more than nine months a year.

Funding needs

Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale, a Republican who helps write the education budget, said the Senate proposed the large teacher assistant cut because they were looking for ways to save money.

Tillman, a retired school administrator, said he understands that schools need teacher assistants, but “we didn’t have enough to fund all the educational needs.”

The budget isn’t finished yet. Representatives and Senators working on education spending will meet Monday to begin working on a compromise, Tillman said.

The state pays for teacher assistants based on how many children are enrolled in kindergarten through third grade. But school districts can convert some of the money they receive for teacher assistants to teaching positions, and they have discretion in how they deploy teacher assistants.

In some districts, teacher assistants have all but vanished from second- and third-grade classrooms.

Importance of assistants

This year is a replay of the 2011 tug of war the House and Senate had over teacher assistants, when the Senate wanted big cuts and the House didn’t.

“The Senate has over and over again said they do not feel that the teacher assistants are essential or needed in the classroom. The House has over and over again said, ‘That’s not our feeling,’ ” said Deb Kelly, a teacher assistant from Pinehurst. “We know teacher assistants provide a second line of instruction in the classroom.”

Teacher assistants fight the image that they’re in the classroom to wipe noses and sort papers.

At Barwell Road Elementary, a year-round school, teacher assistants work with students one on one and in small groups, greet children as they get off the buses each morning, and help them on after school. They help keep order during lunch periods, and they proctor exams.

Teacher assistants receive professional training, just as teachers do. Lynette Monroe Carter, a teacher assistant at Barwell Road, said she needs to know much more than the curriculum for kindergarten, the grade where she is assigned. Teacher assistants have to be versatile, and sometimes Carter is asked to substitute in another class.

“To see that light bulb come on when I work with a child and they finally make that connection, that is priceless,” she said.

In Wake, a teacher assistant must hold a high school diploma or a GED certificate. Those hired or rehired after January 2012 must have associate’s degrees, and must have completed at least 48 hours of college coursework or have passed a state test and meet qualifications set under federal law.

Barwell Road has eight teacher assistants for its kindergarten classrooms and two who work with special-needs students.

So much more is being asked of kindergarten students, Principal Sandy Pirolli said, and many who enroll in Barwell Road did not attend pre-kindergarten and aren’t accustomed to school.

With expectations rising for students, Barwell Road wants students reading at grade level by the end of first grade, if not by the end of kindergarten, Pirolli said. A new state law says that most students who do not read at grade level by the end of the third grade won’t be promoted.

The new standards make it vital that kindergartners get a strong start, Pirolli said, and the assistants are part of that effort.

With the state budget still undecided, “we’re just holding our breath,” she said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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