Sorting out the impacts of proposed teacher aide cuts

Among the many points of contention between the state House and Senate's competing budget proposals is a measure that would cut millions from what the state doles out to school systems for teacher assistants.

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Tyler Dukes
RALEIGH, N.C. — Among the many points of contention between the state House's and Senate's competing budget proposals is a Senate plan that would cut millions from what the state doles out to school systems for teacher assistants.
Although the House version funds teacher assistants at the same rate as 2014-15, with an infusion of cash to replace the reallocation of lottery money, the Senate wants to reduce that amount by $223.7 million over two years. The change would effectively cut funding for teacher assistants by about 80 percent by the 2016-17 school year.

Senate budget writers argue that reallocating that money to reduce class sizes and hire more teachers for grades K-3 will mean better educational outcomes for students. Over the next two years, their proposal would spend $273 million to reduce student-teacher ratios to 17:1 in kindergarten and 15:1 in grades one through three.

But the Senate plan isn't sitting well with some, who say that laying off an estimated 8,500 teacher assistants will profoundly impact the state and its teachers.

Do teacher assistants improve education outcomes?

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger's office has pointed to several studies that showed little to no benefits in learning behaviors, test scores or academic achievement for students who learn in classes with teacher aides.

That research uses data from Project STAR (for "Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio"), conducted in Tennessee in the 1980s with a focus on investigating the effects of reduced class sizes.

But Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at North Carolina State University's College of Education, said the benefits of a teacher assistant can be hard to measure.

Because students enter early grades at different levels of preparation, assistants typically allow teachers to provide instruction on a more individual level depending on a students' needs.

"You can really, within the context of your classroom, have students working at different levels," Maher said. "If I'm a single teacher, it's much harder to do that."

He points out the question of effectiveness can be tough to answer definitively in North Carolina. The majority of teacher assistants serve K-2 classrooms, and students in North Carolina don't begin standardized testing until the third grade.

As for class sizes, he said, the research has been mixed. Other educational experts agree, as WUNC reported earlier this week.

"Nothing that I've come across says, absolutely, this is the number of children you shouldn't have in a classroom," Maher said.

The studies Berger's office cites, again largely dependent upon STAR Project data, concluded students in smaller classes of around 15 to 17 students learn more effectively. In an interview with WUNC's Reema Khrais, SUNY-Buffalo professor Jeremy Finn said his conclusions from the STAR study showed classes like these mean both better test scores and behavior:

“They can’t hide in the back corners and form their little friendship groups that distract from teaching,” he says. “A student in a class of 15 or 17 knows that he or she can be called on for the next question”

The impacts, he says, are long-lasting, especially for minority and low-income students. He says children who were in small classes for three or four years are more likely to graduate or take college entrance exams.

Maher said other research shows that success is overwhelmingly determined by factors outside the schoolhouse, where students spend most of their time. The remainder – calculated as affecting about 7 percent of student achievement – encompasses all of the other school factors, including class size.

"You've got this small percentage that dictates how well a child does," Maher said, "and a majority of that is the quality of the individual teacher."

Reducing class sizes in early grades "would be fantastic for North Carolina," he said. But he said he worries about the implementation. Many districts are already having problems recruiting and hiring enough teachers because state programs like his can't keep up with demand.

For counties like Wake, which already rely on temporary trailers to serve ballooning student populations, space for all those extra classrooms could become a problem.

"Where are we going to put these additional teachers?" he said. "We're already kind of bursting at the seams."

Is this the largest layoff in state history?

The actual number of teacher assistants that would see layoffs under the Senate plan is a rough estimate, since the state essentially provides a pot of money – not guaranteed positions – school systems can use to hire TAs.

At the end of the 2014-15 academic year, school systems employed 22,505 teacher assistants, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. The majority – about 15,000 – were funded by the state, with about 30 percent funded by federal and local sources.

The loss of 8,500 positions would amount to a cut of about 38 percent of the teacher assistant workforce.

But this won't happen all at once.

Because the cuts are phased in over two years, about 2,200 teacher assistants would see layoffs in 2015-16 and around 6,300 in 2016-17. That's based on the salary range for teacher assistants of $19,772 to $31,430 (Price said they average $31,496, including benefits).

Local school systems, which already fund about 12 percent of the state's total number of teacher assistants, might choose to fund more positions on their own in the absence of state money.

With those numbers in mind, backing up the "largest layoff" claim comes down to how you define your comparisons.

According to a 2011 survey by DPI of the state's 115 school systems, which included the period when schools were hit hardest by cuts during the recession, the 2011-12 academic year saw the elimination of 6,383 positions. That included teachers from Pre-K to 12th grade, as well as teacher assistants, principals and support staff.

But that was positions, not people, and included vacancies. The actual number of employees laid off was 2,421.

A review of North Carolina WARN notices, which private employers are required to file with the state in certain circumstances to inform officials of large-scale layoffs, the largest private-sector mass firing the state has seen since 2009 is American Express. In 2011, the financial company announced it would fire 1,355 people in Greensboro.

In that six-and-a-half-year period, the total number of number of annual reported layoffs noted in WARN notices peaked in 2009 at 21,075.

Then there's Pillowtex Corp.

In 2003, amid an exodus of textile jobs from the state, the company announced it would lay off 4,790 people in North Carolina as it filed for bankruptcy. The Charlotte Observer reported that it was the largest permanent layoff in state history at the time.

Philip Price, DPI's chief financial officer, contends the claim that the Senate measure will mean the largest layoff in history isn't terribly useful, because comparing layoffs to the past doesn't adequately describe the impact on a school system that has seen massive growth in its student population.

"It just doesn't do anybody any good to make broad statements," Price said.

Since the 2008-09 academic year, the state has seen 43,749 more students enroll in public schools that have seen several years of cuts. In that period, North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants Secretary Melinda Zarate said, the state lost 7,000 teacher assistants.

"What's happened is a dramatic reduction in the adults in the school building," Price said. "This is just adding to a pretty heinous situation."

Could laid off TAs file for unemployment benefits? Would those payouts impact the state?

The most honest answer is: it depends.

According to Larry Parker, spokesman with the state Division of Employment Security, his office evaluates every application for unemployment benefits for eligibility individually.

"In the end, it will come down to the schools as to what they choose to do with their TAs, but if they tell them they will not have a job this fall, then it will be considered a layoff," Parker said in an email to WRAL News.

To be eligible for unemployment insurance, a laid-off worker must be able, available and seeking work each week to get benefits. Eligibility would assume teacher assistants won't find other work or will continue to seek work.

Parker said, if the employee is eligible, the school system would be responsible for the cost of the unemployment insurance claims at the end of the year, a burden that extends, in practice, to taxpayers.

But DPI's Price said the department hasn't run any numbers on the cost of an uptick in claims to the state and its school systems. He also said he doesn't know of any measure in the Senate provision that would offset those payouts.

Because many school districts renew contracts for teachers and teacher assistants at the end of the academic year, they would incur other costs, such as COBRA health benefits and severance packages. All that extra spending, Price said, would eat into the $223.7 million in TA funding the Senate plans to reduce over the next two years.

"It's not a pure savings," Price said.

Officials with Berger's office, however, say they're not concerned.

"While there is a lot of ambiguity around this issue, we do not have any indication that this would have a direct impact on the budget," Berger spokeswoman Shelly Carver said in an email to WRAL News.

Aside from all the hypothetical questions about whether school systems would step up and fund these TAs themselves, it's important to remember that unemployment insurance is covered by employees currently on the rolls.

So, if the state ends up hiring more teachers as a result of the Senate provision to lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, that would boost the number of people paying for unemployment insurance, even though more payments are going to laid-off teacher assistants.

Berger's office also argues that benefits come into play only in cases where there's a reasonable expectation of future employment. Because the cuts to teacher assistants are phased in over two years, Senate leaders say unemployment eligibility will be a harder argument to make for the majority of teacher assistants who will be laid off in the next fiscal year.


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