NC lawmakers should protect funding for teacher assistants

One thing’s clear from the state Senate budget that makes huge cuts in money for teachers assistants: Not many Republican senators have spent time recently in elementary school classrooms.

These days, though, zeal overcomes common sense with regularity in the upper chamber, whether it’s Senate President pro-tem Phil Berger’s ideological maneuvers against legal same-sex marriage or cuts to public education and attacks on the University of North Carolina.

But the cuts to teachers assistants will have serious consequences, and not just in record layoffs. These assistants, focused in the early grades, perform incredibly valuable duties. They monitor behavior, help children who need extra attention, keep track of evaluations and paperwork, deal with parents, and basically help make classrooms run while allowing teachers to focus on their missions.

Republican lawmakers who defend these proposed cuts by saying they’re going to invest more in reducing class size – which they claim is more important than teachers assistants – are being shortsighted. Why not invest in both and give all students a better education and more of the attention they deserve?

And a lot of the cuts in the Senate budget, of course, are necessitated by yet more income tax breaks to help the wealthy and big business. Thus, senators continue to cut valuable services and education that benefit all North Carolinians in favor of helping a few. Their budgeting process has been ham-handed and secret, of course.

The recovery from a recession is supposed to mean more investment in public needs, not hold-the-line budgets that starve education and services, and not more taxes on day-to-day services such as the Senate proposes, to make up for its income tax cuts.

And so there go teachers assistants, surely some of the most valuable, underpaid and under-appreciated people working in the public schools. Anyone who’s been in an elementary classroom knows that the very best teachers are forced to work long, long hours and be everything from a teacher to a mentor to a parent to a counselor. And then of course there are the meetings with parents who may have ideas of their own about how their children should be taught.

The job is draining; it is intense. And it is demanding, to come into a classroom with children in different stages of preparation, from backgrounds in which some parents take a great interest and others take very little. The teacher’s mission: Give them all the same high quality education. Sometimes, teachers must wonder if next they’ll be asked to part the seas or simply walk across them.

Teachers say all the time that they appreciate their rewards, in seeing a child succeed. And they also say that having a good assistant is often the difference in helping them provide the very best help and instruction they can. Teaching assistants are a wise investment, not a frill.

Republicans who have led the charge against substantially more investment in public education, who have sometimes made the public schools a political target (advocating more charter schools and public money in vouchers to pay for private school) are giving in to their worst political instincts. And, they apparently are oblivious, in their hard-right ideological cloud, to the fact that the majority of families in North Carolina send their kids to public schools and are quite satisfied with the education their children are getting. It has been so for over 100 years.

Teachers assistants are a vital part of a quality education, particularly focused as they are when kids are in the earliest grades, years which often determine how well they will do as they move through elementary, middle and high school. More assistants, not fewer, are needed.