Rob Christensen

Teacher aides in limbo again

Teacher assistant Aimee Pattison, right, helps first-grader Jaeden Clayton-Valdez with reading exercises during Jennifer Quinn’s class at Lake Myra Elementary in June 2015.
Teacher assistant Aimee Pattison, right, helps first-grader Jaeden Clayton-Valdez with reading exercises during Jennifer Quinn’s class at Lake Myra Elementary in June 2015.

In 1977, newly elected Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, his hair still dark and shaped in a pompadour, pushed through the legislature his Primary Reading Program. It was the centerpiece of his education reform effort.

The program put reading aides in every classroom in grades 1 through 3, with the goal of improving literacy among young children. The idea was that having two adults in every classroom would provide the extra attention needed to help students learn to read during the critical early years. It was the first program of its kind in the nation.

Two years later, in his 1979 State of the State address, Hunt would declare: “I am proud that our Primary Reading Program is underway and that last year, for the first time, our first- and second-graders scored at or above the national average in reading and math.”

Those teacher aides are one of the sticking points in the current budget negotiations between the House and the Senate, now controlled by Republicans. The Senate budget would eliminate 8,500 teacher assistants over the next two years – or about one third of the 23,000 teacher aides.

The House budget would keep the teacher assistants. The legislature has previously eliminated about 7,000 teacher assistants.

The debate over teacher assistants involves a series of issues – from where to best spend money, the effectiveness of teacher assistants, and tax cuts.

The use of teacher assistants, or para professionals, has become widespread all over the world in recent decades. In North Carolina, they have evolved into jack-of-all-trades where they not only help children in reading and math, but work with students with special needs, help children get on and off buses, and in some areas even drive school buses.

Teaching kids to read early is critical, numerous studies agree. Senate Republicans agree with that point, which is why they started the Read to Achieve program, which is designed to help make students ready to learn before the fourth grade.

But the Senate has been skeptical about the value of teacher assistants. Their skepticism is based, in part, on studies, such as a report by the Dublin-based Institute of Education that shows that primary and secondary pupils supported by teacher assistants made less progress on average than those of similar ability, social class and gender who do not receive such assistance. Critics say the problem with such reports is that teacher assistants tend to look after pupils most in need, reducing the contact those students have with the qualified teacher.

The Senate is proposing spending the money saved by cutting the teacher assistants to hire 3,200 new teachers – and reduce class sizes in kindergarten through grade 3 next year. That would reduce the teacher-student ratio to one teacher per 15 students in the first three grades over the next two years.

The Senate argues that eliminating the teaching assistant programs frees up money to help finance lowering class sizes – and plans to increase teacher salaries.

The Senate believes that is the best way to improve student achievement.

But there are questions about whether the state could find enough new teachers to hire or classroom space to put them in. The teacher pipeline is drying up because of poor pay, working conditions, the end of tenure and so forth.

There has been quite a bit of political blowback to the proposed elimination of 8,500 teacher aides, with critics calling it the largest layoff in North Carolina history – and one that will affect nearly every community in the state. (The previous largest was the Pillotex Corp, or the old Cannon Mills of Kannapolis, laying off 4,800 workers in 2003.)

Publicly funded jobs put food on the table, and cash in the pockets of local merchants, just like private jobs do.

The education debate does not occur in a political vacuum.

The Senate in 2013 enacted the largest tax cuts in North Carolina history and, after returning another strong Republican majority in 2014, it is back again for even more tax cuts. Because of the Senate’s devotion to the theory of supply-side economics, it now faces the difficult choice of reducing classes or enacting mass layoffs of teacher assistants.

It is a policy corner of its own making.

The House, however, still believes that teaching assistants have value. This is the third year in a row the House and Senate have wrangled over teaching assistants.

So going into mid-summer, the state’s 115 local school districts are in limbo and thousands of teacher assistant’s lives are on hold as they wait to see what will happen on Jones Street.