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Budget plan a failure for teacher assistants

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher assistants would prefer to lose some hours and days instead of seeing more than 400 of their positions eliminated in potential budget cuts. In survey results released to the editorial board this week, about nine in 10 would choose that loss in pay instead of the district-wide cuts that would result from a reduction in state funding. It’s a choice they shouldn’t have to face.

The survey of 1,913 assistants and principals was conducted last month in the wake of Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget plan, which would cut about 3,000 second- and third-grade teacher assistant positions statewide. The options CMS offered to assistants and principals: 1) Cut 400 assistant jobs if McCrory’s budget is approved; 2) shift assistants from 215 work days to 200; 3) reduce their hours from 8 per day to 7.5, or 4) do a combination of No. 2 and No. 3.

More than 44 percent of teacher assistants and their principals chose the last alternative, with another 44 percent choosing either the second or third. That’s not surprising. Most of us, faced with a similar question, would choose the option that ensures holding onto our jobs.

But those choices also show that teacher assistants and their principals know how valuable those jobs are. Teacher assistants perform a variety of roles in classrooms, from making sure teachers and students have the materials they need to assisting with lessons and individual students. At a ceremony this month honoring CMS teacher assistant of the year Frances Stitt of J.H. Gunn Elementary, Stitt described her day. She starts her morning in the cafeteria making sure students have something to eat and are ready for class. In the classroom, she gives her students assignments in several subjects, and from those assignment she’s able to assess and help individual students.

In other words, she’s a co-teacher. That’s especially critical in classrooms filled with students who are trying to catch up to grade level or struggling to stay there. Add to that a state-mandated emphasis on getting more third-graders to read proficiently, and the governor’s budget is confusing. Why cut jobs so critical to meeting goals Republicans pushed to set?

McCrory administration officials say that the cuts are offset by 1,800 new teaching positions, but that also is a false choice, as is the contention that individual districts can reallocate state money to hang on to their assistants. State per pupil funding for CMS is currently 7.1 percent below 2009 levels. If McCrory truly has the passion for education that he mentioned often on the campaign trail, the former teacher should know that cutting positions is not the path to improving the test scores and graduation rates he laments.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison and school board members continue to lobby officials and lawmakers in Raleigh in advance of the budget votes, which are likely to come next month. The district, which faces rising costs and enrollment, also is preparing for the worst by exploring budget options, including those the teacher assistants and their principals considered in their survey. Unfortunately, “none of the above” wasn’t a choice.

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