Point of View

NC budget malpractice: Cutting teacher assistants to pay teachers more

June 4, 2014 

A plan to give teachers a pay raise deserves a hallelujah. Our North Carolina educators have been under a virtual wage freeze for seven years, and we have lost so many teachers to other states it is humiliating. Even Texas runs ads offering to pay teachers $16,000 more a year than what any public school in North Carolina pays.

So how fantastic, one might think, when lawmakers proposed an 11 percent average pay raise. Everyone was excited. But then the next day the Senate announced the caveats: Teachers must be willing to give up tenure, and (insert Machiavelli here) half the money comes from firing teacher assistants.

That’s like telling my little daughter before she goes to bed at night: “Good news! We can pay for your liver transplant!” – then asking when she wakes up happy the next morning: “Did we mention we’re selling your kidney to pay for it?”

I’m not a doctor, but I’m guessing that practice would qualify as bad medicine. Likewise, I know our own system will suffer from the effects of this so-called “pay .” Our elementary schools will be losing an average of five teacher assistants next year.

Senate Bill 744 is worse than worthless. Worthless, because the bill does not encourage teachers to stay in our state (good teachers will choose other states where they will have tenure, assistants and more pay). Worse, it literally fires more than 7,000 teacher assistants across the state.

Teacher assistants are not in schools to make copies or be wall decorations. They are the best deal going in education because schools get another teacher at half the cost. Assistant teachers run small reading groups and math groups, and can be frequently seen hustling down the hallway to get breakfast for children who missed dinner the night before. With many impoverished and – it’s hard to believe but shamefully true – homeless children in our schools, assistant teachers have never been more valuable.

Tenure and assistants or not, those ads from Texas offering to pay $16,000 more are working. Half the kindergarten teachers at my daughter’s school are leaving this year for greener pastures. It’s devastating and humiliating, and I don’t use those words lightly.

A study led by Harvard economist Dr. Raj Chetty examined the life paths and incomes of over 10,000 children who had taken part in a 1980s educational experiment in Tennessee (the children are now in their 30s). What Chetty found is that those children who had great kindergarten teachers back in 1980 were more successful in life than those who had average teachers. How much in pure dollar value? For a class of 20 students, about $320,000 more in total earnings. Per year!

Dr. Chetty’s study only reinforces what parents know in their hearts: Teaching the ABCs is just one small component of a teacher’s job. Expanding a child’s horizons and life outcome are what great teachers do. What is the best thing that can happen to your kindergarten child? To have a great teacher.

Because 2014 is an election year, there were hopes that the state legislature would do something positive for our children. With many North Carolina teachers on food stamps and Medicaid, it seemed our lawmakers finally understood the critical need to pay teachers a wage that kept them in the state. Town hall meetings sprouted up in different districts, and parents and educators alike were grateful that our politicians listened and committed to lift teacher pay off the floor of our country.

Lawmakers responded by saying they would prioritize paying teachers, but from where would the money come? Well, they’ve answered that question by getting half the money, $233 million of it, by cutting teacher assistants and further dismantling education. The other half of the money? Mostly from shifting funds around.

How can any legislator possibly feel good about giving teachers a raise by forcing thousands of other teachers off the job? This Senate bill is so ugly and misbegotten that even Gov. Pat McCrory has expressed sincere reservations about it. Good for him. Give credit where credit is due. He knows the simple truth. The main purpose of this so-called “raise” is to raise confusion for voters who might think the legislature cares about public education.

Matt Buys is a member of the Asheville City Board of Education. His opinions are his own.

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