When public education has to defend itself against the state’s General Assembly in order to function effectively, those in government should reassess their priorities as elected officials.
Take for instance the political cartoon published in the Winston-Salem Journal on July 9, 2015 which parodies the iconic advertisement for the movie Jaws. It brilliantly depicts the NC Legislature as the man-eating great white shark lurking in the waters ready to devour public education. John Cole, the artist from ncpolicywatch.gov, makes reference to the battle over charter schools, vouchers, veteran teacher pay, retirement benefit cuts, and the latest development in the assault on public schools: the elimination of teacher assistant jobs.
North Carolina has over 7400 fewer teacher assistants than it did ten years ago.
Let me repeat: North Carolina has over 7400 fewer teacher assistants than it did ten years ago.
When study after study published by leading education scholars (Ravitch, Kozol, etc.) preach that reaching students early in their academic lives is most crucial for success in high school and life, our General Assembly actually promoted one of the largest layoffs in state history.
As a voter, I am disappointed that the last six years with this GOP-led NCGA has fostered a calculated attack against public schools with more power and money given to entities to privatize education. By eliminating teacher assistants, the NCGA simply weakened the effectiveness of elementary schools even more and helped substantiate the need to divert my tax money to segregate educational opportunities even more.
As a teacher, I am disheartened that my fellow educators are being devalued. Yes, teacher assistants are professional educators complete with training and a passion to teach students. With the onslaught of state testing, curriculum changes, and political focus on student achievement, these people fight on the front lines and advocate for your children and your neighbors’ children.
But as a parent, I am most incensed by this move to eliminate teacher assistants because my own child has tremendously benefited from the work of teacher assistants. Even as I write these words, my ten-year-old red-headed, blue-eyed son, who happens to have Down Syndrome and autism, walks through the house articulating his thoughts, communicating his needs, and sharing his love to explore. And I give much of that credit to those who teach him in school: his teachers and their assistants.
When my wife and I explored educational pathways for our son two years ago, we talked to both public and private schools about how they could serve our child. Interestingly enough, we were informed that really the only option we had was public schooling; most private schools will not take a child with Down Syndrome. Simply put, they were “not prepared” to teach him. But his current public school not only welcomed him, they nurtured him and valued him. And it is because of the people – the teachers and the teacher assistants.
The rationale for eliminating teacher assistant positions actually reveals the disconnect that our elected officials have with public education. In June of 2015 in the Greensboro News and Record, former Sen. Tom Apodaca said, “We always believe that having a classroom teacher in a classroom is the most important thing we can do. Reducing class sizes, we feel, will give us better results for the students.” The irony in this statement is not only obvious; it is glaring.
That’s what teaching assistants already do. They mitigate class size by increasing the opportunities for student interaction. More prepared people in a classroom gives more students like my son the opportunity to learn. Apodaca suggested that having two classrooms of 25 students with a teacher and an assistant is weaker than having two classes of 22 students with just a classroom teacher. That’s not logical.
Oddly enough, Sen. Apodaca and his constituents at the time already knew the value of assistants. He himself had three on staff according to the July 2015 telephone directory of the General Assembly. Sen. Phil Berger had fifteen staff members, three with “Assistant” in their title and five with “Advisor”. Maybe dismissing some of these “assistants” would have offered some perspective.
Public schools are strongest when the focus is on human investment. People committed to teaching, especially experienced professionals, are the glue that holds education together. Eliminating jobs so that some political agenda can be fulfilled really is like forcing a bleeding public school system to swim in shark infested waters.