This summer, North Carolina senators pushed a plan to cut thousands of teacher assistants. Educators from across the state rallied against the idea, and in the budget compromise unveiled this week, lawmakers decided to keep funding for teacher assistants.
But there’s a catch, and it’s one that many educators say is problematic.
Under the budget deal, schools would be required to use money for teacher assistants for only that. Nothing else.
So, what’s the problem? Well, some schools also use that money to hire teachers, like Darren Geraci – a technology teacher at Apex Elementary School.
Geraci teaches technology to kids as young as age five.
“My first rule is do not touch the screens. So it’s learning how to use a mouse with kindergartners,” he explains.
With his fifth-grade students, Geraci teaches them things like how to create an excel sheet or deal with cyber-bullying.
Geraci also takes care of technology throughout the school building, trains teachers and is the main contact on the school’s help desk.
“If we lose him, I don’t want to say we fall apart…but, it’ll be a burden,” Principal Keith Faison explains.
Faison made a tricky compromise to keep Geraci around. He didn’t have enough money, so instead of hiring two teacher assistants, he used those salaries from the state to create one teacher position.
“I’d like to have both because we need both,” he says. “But in our current situation we couldn’t add more teacher assistants at the expense of losing that teacher.”
That means not all kindergarten through second grade classes at the school have teacher assistants. In fact, none of the second grade classes do.
More than 40 school districts use this flexibility in the state budget to hire more teachers. But the budget deal lawmakers are voting on this week would take that ability away. So what does that mean for teachers who’ve already been hired?
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to prevent any type of disruption in our schools and our classrooms,” says David Neter, chief business officer for Wake County Public Schools.
Neter says he doesn’t expect the district to fire any of the roughly 80 teachers paid for with teacher assistant money.
School leaders across the state will likely dig through their books carefully to make sure they hold on to their teachers, says Philip Price, chief financial officer at the Department of Public Instruction. Of the $376.1 million the state allocated for teacher assistants last school year, schools diverted about $46 million to other school needs - mainly teachers.
Republican leaders, like Senator Tom Apodaca from Hendersonville, say the new restriction would give schools some stability.
“Well, they weren’t happy when they didn’t have the money for teacher assistants,” Apodaca says. “So, it really needs to be used with what it’s designated for and if they need money for other items there are other flexibilities available.”
But for some educators, precedent doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Danny Holloman, superintendent of Person County Schools, says he’s hesitant to use all of the teacher assistant money for just that because of one big question:
“Are we going to be able to sustain them if we hire them? Or will there be legislation next year, or the next year, that would put us back at the point of maybe having to reduce?” he says.
The number of teacher assistants paid by the state has dipped by more than 30 percent over the last seven years.
Holloman says he appreciates the resources lawmakers are providing, but says they’re not enough and that the state needs to refocus its priorities.
The Senate has already approved the nearly $22 billion budget plan. The House is expected to the same just past midnight.