Sixty-plus days past a July 1st deadline and North Carolina still has no state budget. One issue that many think is prolonging the current stalemate is what to do about teacher assistants (TAs). The best way to break the impasse is for the General Assembly to follow the state Senate’s lead and trim the number of TAs while increasing the number of teachers when it finalizes a spending plan for K-12 education.
TAs are, as their name implies, teacher helpers. They are usually assigned a variety of instructional or classroom management tasks and are usually concentrated in the lower grades (K-3).
The state House’s plan adjusts sources of funding for TAs to offset the loss of $88.9 million in lottery receipts. With the changes, the funding will be $376.1 million, approximately the same as FY 2014-15.
The Senate budget reduces funding for TAs by $57.5 million in 2015-16 and $166.1 million in 2016-17. All told, the reductions will result in $181.5 million for TAs in 2015-16 and $75.4 million in 2016-17. The $181 million figure is approximately half the current funding available for TAs.
The plan also calls for cutting TAs by about 8,500 statewide and using the money to hire about 6,700 teachers to help reduce class sizes in lower elementary grades. Those changes add $79.9 million to the Senate plan in 2015-16 and $192.9 million the following year (2016-17). While those costs exceed the immediate cost savings in year two, it is important to note the long-term benefits of the Senate K-12 education budget plan, which is about $307 million less than the House’s budget in 2015-16 and about $318 million less in 2016-17.
The Senate plan has much to recommend it. True, both proposals seek to provide schools with resources to raise student achievement. The House plan, however, represents a status quo proposal. It adds about $89 million in new revenue in each year of the budget cycle to continue existing funding levels for TAs. Implicit in the funding levels is the belief that TAs are an important addition to the classroom and warrant additional spending to keep them there.
The Senate plan challenges this thinking. It is propelled by the reality that there is no conclusive research that shows the presence of TAs is associated with a boost in student achievement. That said, the Senate plan reduces the number of TAs and replaces them with more teachers in smaller classes in public schools.
The first TAs in North Carolina began to work in the classroom in the 1970s, when they were used to help students learn how to read. Today TAs help teachers with a variety of instructional and classroom management concerns. According to the NC Department of Public Instruction, TAs on average earn about $21,258 a year, not including local supplement. Some observers view their current duties as flexible. Others see teacher assistants’ roles as ill-defined.
Over the years the number of teacher assistants has fluctuated. In early 2000s, the number of TAs expanded from 28,328 to a high of 30,022 in 2008-09. Since then the number of TAs has declined due to budget slowdowns and other reasons. This year the possibility of TA layoffs has set off a rancorous – but much needed – debate about the value of TAs and how best to boost student achievement.
No doubt that debate will continue among legislators in the House and the Senate as well as those others concerned about how best to educate students in our public schools. For those involved in the debate, I ask them to consider the following questions:
- If TAs are essential for classroom success and student achievement, why are North Carolina’s results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests flat? Why is Read to Achieve necessary to boost third-grade reading scores?
- Next to teachers, TAs constitute the second largest position category for North Carolina public schools, at a cost of millions of dollars each year. In light of the dearth of supporting research, how does North Carolina continue to justify continued expenditures for TAs?
There will likely be much discussion about legislators reducing the number of TAs across North Carolina. It’s important to remember, however, that cutting spending on TAs in the state budget is not synonymous with losing staffing. Four years ago, the legislature gave LEAs flexibility on how money could be spent on school personnel. The law was motivated by the view that local officials – not politicians in Raleigh – were best able to address local school staffing needs. Hence if an LEA would like to keep TAs, it may be able to use other monies to do so.
Along those lines, it’s also important to realize the General Assembly added an additional $100 million to the education budget to address the costs of enrollment growth. LEAs are able to use this additional money as they see fit – including helping to meet personnel costs.
Senate budget provisions calling for significant reductions in the number of TAs and additional teachers to staff smaller classrooms reflect new thinking that says student achievement is best aided not by the presence of a TA but by the presence of a high-quality teacher. Such thinking is bolstered by an intuitive appeal and a history of research that fails to identify a link between the presence of TAs and an improvement in student achievement. For all these compelling reasons, the Senate’s plan to cut back on teacher assistants while providing more effective funding for teachers is clearly the superior option.
 See: Teacher Aides and Student’s Academic Achievement, Susan B. Gerber and Jeremy B. Flynn published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis available at: http://epa.sagepub.com/content/23/2/123.short. See also: Teacher Assistants and Student Performance: What Does the Research Say? Education Update, April 2011, Dr. Terry Stoops, Education. Available at: http://www.johnlocke.org/newsletters/research/2011-04-19-3nug9foam3cuonmodb1up4p2h1-edu-update.html