Politics & Government

NC Senate budget would cut teacher assistants to reduce class sizes

Jane Gilewicz, a teacher's assistant at Poe Elementary School in Raleigh, works with Yasemire Brailsford (left) and Lesly Salinas Noyola in a K-1 class in 2014. The Senate’s budget proposal would cut funding for teacher’s assistants.
Jane Gilewicz, a teacher's assistant at Poe Elementary School in Raleigh, works with Yasemire Brailsford (left) and Lesly Salinas Noyola in a K-1 class in 2014. The Senate’s budget proposal would cut funding for teacher’s assistants. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Senate’s budget plan calls for making a trade in many school classrooms: Cutting about 5,000 teacher assistant positions while adding about 2,000 teachers to reduce class sizes.

The proposal sets up a debate with House leaders, whose budget kept teacher assistant funding levels unchanged.

“We always believe that having a classroom teacher in a classroom is the most important thing we can do,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, one of the chamber’s education budget writers. “Reducing class sizes, we feel, will give us better results for the students.”

The N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants, however, disagrees with that claim and expects to have about 15 members at the legislature Wednesday to fight for their jobs.

“We do more than just walk kids to the cafeteria,” said Lacey Autry, a 10-year teacher assistant in Lumberton and a member of the group. “We’re hand-in-hand with that teacher.”

The cuts to teacher assistants will save the state $57.5 million in the next fiscal year and $166.1 million in 2016-2017. By comparison, the Senate plan would spend $79.9 million to reduce class sizes in the next fiscal year and $192.9 million in 2016-2017 by hiring more teachers.

That would mean 1,760 fewer teacher assistants in the next school year and 5,062 in 2016-2017. But the number is higher when you include positions paid for with lottery money and other nonrecurring funds – about 8,500 by some estimates.

Opponents of the Senate budget say the trade shouldn’t be necessary, because proposed corporate and personal income tax cuts would make less revenue available for schools.

“If it weren’t for this tax plan, North Carolina would have more to invest in our public schools, in the health of families, the efficient delivery of justice and in communities across the state,” said Alexandra Sirota of the liberal N.C. Budget and Tax Center. “We wouldn’t see teacher assistants sacrificed for smaller class sizes.”

Some school districts, however, have made the shift away from teacher assistants on their own. Johnston County and others have diverted some of their teacher assistant salary dollars to make up for cuts elsewhere, or to add more teachers.

The Senate plan would reduce teacher-student ratios in grades 1-3 next year by one student, so each teacher would have 16 students. The following year, teacher-student ratios in kindergarten would drop by one student to 17 kids per teacher. And in grades 1-3, each teacher would have 15 students in 2016-2017.

Autry questioned how well the change will work, because some schools don’t have space for more classrooms.

“Buildings are filled,” he said. “They’re dreaming about cutting classroom sizes. It’s not going to happen unless they give us funds to build schools.”

The N.C. Association of Educators also opposes the shift away from teacher assistants. “Instead of using the opportunity of a surplus budget to make critical investments in public education, the Senate majority chose to decimate the state’s teacher assistants,” said Rodney Ellis, the group’s president. “Students will lose out on the opportunity for more one-on-one instruction, not to mention the thousands of families that will be put in turmoil because they have lost a job.”

Overall, the Senate would increase K-12 spending by $176.4 million, or 2.2 percent, over the current fiscal year. The House would add $268.8 million, or 3.3 percent, over the current year – although $31.6 million of that is nonrecurring funding.

At least one education group is backing the Senate plan: Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which advocates for charter school and private school vouchers.

The Senate budget would double the House’s proposed funding for the “Opportunity Scholarship” program over two years – allocating $17.6 million in recurring funds instead of the $6.8 million nonrecurring funding in the House budget. The program offers grants of up to $2,100 for students to attend private schools.

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Driver’s ed on chopping block

An amendment added to the Senate budget on Tuesday would end the state’s driver’s education requirement – instead requiring more time behind the wheel with a parent.

Instead of taking behind-the-wheel instruction, drivers would need an additional 25 hours of supervised driving for a total of 85 hours. They’d also need to answer 85 percent of questions correctly on the state’s written driving test.

The change was proposed by Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican who said it’s needed because of the Senate’s plan to end driver’s education programs in public schools – shifting the classes to community colleges.

“We don’t want to only make driver’s licenses available for high-income individuals” who can afford classes, Hise said.