State Senate leader Phil Berger is wrong on teacher assistants

June 10, 2014 

Phil Berger knows better. A small-town lawyer by trade, the Republican president pro tem of the state Senate deals every day in his profession with figures and laws and details.

And he ought to know that his desperate grasp of weak straws to justify a draconian cut in teacher assistants as proposed in the Senate budget is not going to convince anyone that those cuts are harmless. Fortunately, the House budget is more moderate, perhaps reflecting the U.S. Senate ambitions of Speaker Thom Tillis, who knows he’ll have to broaden his appeal outside of the tea party sphere if he’s to have a chance to be elected statewide.

The Senate proposal would cut the funding for teacher assistants in half – by more than $200 million – a move that would eliminate about 7,400 positions. The Senate proposal uses the savings to help pay for a $468 million plan to raise teacher pay an average of 11 percent. The state currently ranks 48th in teacher compensation in the country.

Teachers, some of whom met with Berger on Monday, couldn’t be blamed for being skeptical. Berger has been a strong critic of teachers, largely because some of them dared to criticize Republicans’ earlier cuts to public education.

Legislators have backed vouchers so some parents can send their children to private schools on the public dime, though the amount of money wouldn’t pay all costs at the most prominent private schools. They’ve also backed the expansion of charter schools, funded with public money, even though some of those schools have had trouble and charters drain money from mainstream schools.

The cuts to assistants were only the latest moves on public schools. Teacher assistants perform vital services by allowing teachers to give more individual instruction in reading and other fundamentals. They also help manage classrooms by helping students with behavioral problems. Now used from kindergarten through third grade, assistants under Berger’s plan would be available only in kindergarten and first grade.

Widespread criticism of this drastic budget cut has prompted Berger to cite two studies he says show that assistants don’t make that much difference. One is a Tennessee study showing smaller class sizes are more important than teaching assistants.

The problem is, North Carolina’s class sizes are getting larger and may grow even more if the state experiences a teacher shortage. That’s a likely prospect since even the Senate’s proposal will bring the state only to the middle of the pack nationally. And the appeal of the raise would be undercut by the requirement that teachers first give up job protections that entitle them to a hearing if they’re dismissed.

Berger also cites a study from the United Kingdom that he says casts doubt on the effectiveness of teacher assistants. But one of the authors of that study says it’s wrong to use it to justify cutting assistants. Said Ron Webster of the University of London: “Getting rid of TAs is actually going to cause schools far more problems than it will solve.”

So what we have here is a politician using figures and conclusions to his liking and neglecting to offer the whole picture.

Berger and his Republican mates have cut taxes, cuts that help the wealthy and businesses far more than they help the average person, and they’ve expanded the sales tax that will those same average people hardest. One result of the tax changes is going to be a revenue shortfall that likely will require more cuts to university and public school budgets.

Berger clearly is feeling some heat about proposed cuts and policy changes that will hurt public education. He deserves that feedback. And no skewed interpretation of a couple of studies is going to change that.

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