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Assisting a swift decline?

Elements of education reform under debate in Raleigh this year are so many and diverse that little explanation has been given for a key point: the proposed elimination of 3,000 to 4,500 teaching assistant positions in the second and third grades. Why?
More than 20,000 teaching assistants work in the state’s public schools, most employed by the state and the remainder by local systems. Their numbers peaked around 30,000 five years ago. Budget cuts have been whittling their numbers ever since, and it’s hard to get an updated count. “More than 20,000” is a ballpark figure.
But it is not hard to get reaction from the public when lawmakers talk about eliminating even more of those jobs. The notion of taking further resources away from recession-weary schools makes teachers “sad, mad and disgusted,” as one puts it. And it befuddles parents who see the pressure under which teachers work. More than one teacher has suggested that each politician be required to spend a day alone leading a classroom full of children. But, as one educator pointed out, that might not be fair to the kids.
These cuts don’t come out of the blue; they’re cost-cutting measures to redirect funds elsewhere. In Gov. Pat McCrory’s more moderate proposal — which would cut 3,000 teaching assistants — money would go toward adding 1,800 teachers and expanding early childhood education. The Senate’s budget cuts pre-K and 4,500 teaching assistants, and its backers advocate directing taxpayer money toward a private school voucher program.
Speaker of the House Thom Tillis talks about empowering teachers and teaching assistants with a fairer pay system and fewer regulations, and he strikes other reasonable notes. “Far too often, politicians believe they become education experts simply by being elected,” Tillis has said. “We will not legislate with that mentality…”
But that seems to be what has gone on in the other house of the General Assembly, where Sen. Phil Berger is leading an aggressive effort to fix what he considers a broken system. And Tillis’ fellow House members have their own ideas. The scope of the assault on the state’s public school system is broad and deep.
Teaching assistants may feel forgotten in the grand scheme of things. Lawmakers’ actions imply that teaching-assistant jobs are expendable. As debate continues in Raleigh over the budget, taxes and education reform, the value of teaching assistants deserves deeper discussion. It’s hard to believe anyone could, with a straight face, blithely talk about cutting 3,000 to 4,500 of these positions while also pushing intensive reading programs and the importance of literacy. How is that supposed to work?

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