'Critical' TA funding hangs in balance as budget writers haggle

Posted August 20, 2015 6:16 p.m. EDT
Updated August 20, 2015 6:56 p.m. EDT

— Hundreds of thousands of public school children head back to class Monday with a big question: Will the youngest students have teacher assistants?

As state lawmakers continue to haggle over the budget, the jobs of thousands of teacher assistants in kindergarten and first grade classrooms hang in the balance.

At Willow Springs Elementary School, a year-round school, Principal Camille Miller says anyone who think those TAs are expendable should visit her classrooms.

Without teacher assistants, Miller said, "My kids would be in a significant amount of trouble."

TAs help ease the growing pressure on teachers to produce.

"The standards go higher and our resources are diminished," Miller said. "What does that mean for students and parents? It means we're all working harder, and I think the question is at what cost?"

Senate leaders have questioned whether funding teacher assistants truly pays off, but first grade teacher Megan Lewis says her assistant, Lilia Potter, is indispensable.

"I cannot imagine not having her in here," Lewis said.

On Thursday while Lewis kicked off a lesson on reading, Potter provided one-on-one attention.

In Becky Killough's kindergarten class of 23, students arrive with all different levels of preparedness. Some are ready to learn, others, TA Paige Adams said, "don't know how to stand in a line. They don't know how to hold a crayon, let alone what color it is."

It's hard to distinguish between teacher and assistant in Killough's classroom. She and Adams work at a team.

"I couldn't do that by myself," Killough said. "It just really takes two people to meet all of those needs."

"To expect one person to be able to start out with a classroom of 23 kids at all varying levels, to be able to meet each need is really kind of unrealistic," Adams echoed. "I really feel like my job is critical here."

Yet she doesn't know if it will exist next week.

Lawmakers hope to finish work on a $21.7 billion budget by Aug. 31, when a temporary spending measure runs out. Top leaders told their budget negotiators Thursday to be prepared to work Friday and over the weekend in an effort to have a spending plan to vote on sometime next week. However, it’s still possible a final deal could be more than a week away.