Public school districts throughout the state have fewer teacher assistants in the classrooms this academic year than the previous year, despite assurances from lawmakers that the state budget would not lead to TA reductions.
Since the 2008-09 recession, state funding for TAs has been reduced by more than 20 percent, leading to thousands of cuts.
In Cumberland County Schools, teacher assistant Grace King begins her day driving a school bus.
After her shift is over at 8:15 am, she rolls into the lot of Cumberland Mills Elementary School, sweeps the candy wrappers and dirt off the bus, and heads to a first-grade classroom.
“I get ready to do my TA time, my other job – my paying job,” says King.
King has been a teacher assistant for 17 years. Like many other TAs, she drives a bus as part of a school district requirement.
In the classroom, she heads straight to a little brown table and begins going over sight words with an excited group of first-graders.
King says part of her job description is to be flexible – to work with individual students, fill in for teachers, take phone calls and drive buses. During the school day she splits her time between two first-grade classrooms.
“Over the years, things have really changed,” she says. “At one time, first-graders did have a full-time assistant, kindergardeners had a full-time assistant. But with the cuts going on, you’re lucky to have a job.”
King says it’s been a while since her school had teacher assistants for second and third-grades.
“Back in the day, honey,” she says. “A lot of things used to happen back in the day.”
Looking at the numbers
Statewide there are 7,000 fewer teacher assistants today than in 2008.
During the 2008-09 academic year, 30,002 teacher assistants were employed state-wide. Last school year, there were 23,232 teacher assistants.
“We went from about 800 to 400 TAs in about three years [in our district],” says Frank Till, superintendent of Cumberland County schools.
Till says state lawmakers have not provided enough funding to keep up with the growing number of students. This year, Cumberland County schools had to cut about 30 TA positions.
Across the state, school districts faced similar TA cutbacks this school year:
- Rockingham County Schools: 20 fewer positions, reduced hours affecting about 100 people.
- New Hanover County Schools: Approximately 40 fewer positions.
- Buncombe County Schools: Eliminated 30.5 positions.
- Winston-Salem/Forsyth : Eliminated 190 positions.
In all of those cases, school district officials say they cut positions through attrition and retirements, not by laying off staff.
But some school districts – like Wake, Durham and Cabarrus – did not have to make any cuts to TAs this year, even though they also received less funding from the state.
“It is very common for wealthier school districts to take on the costs that had been reduced,” says Phillip Price, Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Public Instruction.
Many school districts, including those who made cuts to TAs, were able to preserve positions by using local funds.
Changes to state budget
Earlier this summer, lawmakers were adamant that school districts would not have to make any cuts to teacher assistants. But some school officials say they had to make cuts because of how the money was allotted.
When lawmakers drafted the budget, they moved about $85 million from the teacher assistant pool to the teacher pool. They said that, historically, some districts have used part of the money allotted for teacher assistants to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, so they were attempting to make the budget more efficient.
Even though districts have the flexibility of moving that money around depending on their needs, the salaries do not convert perfectly, leading to funding gaps.
Officials from the Department of Public Instruction also say that the new budget spends about $105 million less on teacher assistant positions than what was anticipated.
Republican lawmakers argue that education spending has increased in the last school year under their tenure, which is true. But the majority of funding since 2008-09 has been for benefit and salary changes, not for classroom funding.
Feeling the pinch
Teacher assistant Grace King says she and students feel the impact of reductions in the state budget.
“When the teacher has 20 plus kids and you have low kids who have not met standards for first-grade, you are going to need an extra hand. That person [teacher] cannot do it by herself,” she says.
But more are having to figure out how it by themselves. Just how many more won’t be clear until the state gives an official number of teacher assistants cut this school year.