Budget negotiators in the state Senate say they’re willing to pay for teacher assistants and driver’s education – if the House makes a few concessions in the ongoing budget talks.
The Senate’s original budget plan would cut about 5,000 elementary school teacher assistants and eliminate funding for driver’s ed classes in high schools. But the House wants to fund both at current levels.
The dispute between the two Republican-led chambers has left local school districts in limbo as the new academic year began. Some schools have delayed hiring teacher assistants, and Wake County recently suspended its driver’s ed program.
According to House and Senate budget writers, the Senate has offered to keep teacher assistant funding at last year’s levels. But school districts would no longer be allowed to divert teacher assistant dollars to other uses, such as adding extra classroom teachers.
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“If you want this money for teacher assistants, then let’s put this money toward teacher assistants,” said Sen. Harry Brown, the top budget writer in his chamber. “It’s a constant argument, and I think we’re at the point where we’re ready to get it off the table and just say we’re going to fund them at this level.”
The Senate’s offer would also include funding for driver’s ed, according to Rep. Bryan Holloway, who’s been involved in the talks as a House education appropriations co-chairman. The House budget had included $26.38 million for the program.
He said Speaker Tim Moore and senior budget writer Nelson Dollar haven’t yet signed off on the deal. But Holloway, a Stokes County Republican, says he likes the Senate’s offer.
“I’d take the deal and run with it,” he said. “To me, teacher assistants and driver’s education are the two most important things.”
Holloway said he’s comfortable with the Senate’s plan to require school districts to use the money exclusively for teacher assistant salaries.
During the 2014-2015 school year, districts transferred $48 million of $376 million in teacher assistant funds, much of it to hire more classroom teachers. TA money has also gone toward other uses in recent years, including $500,000 for transportation in Johnston County and $162,000 in Wake County for materials and supplies.
The N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants hasn’t opposed those transfers. “We realize that it has been kind of a necessary evil, with everything that has gone on, with decreased funding here and there,” association president William Johnston said. “TAs and teachers are a team – you really can’t have one without the other. It shouldn't be a choice between the two.”
The Senate budget had called for using the teacher assistant money to add 2,000 teachers and reduce elementary class sizes. Senate leaders have argued that smaller classes are more effective for students.
In exchange for supporting teacher assistants, the Senate has asked for other concessions in the education portion of the budget, Holloway said. Once funding for teacher assistants and driver’s ed is added, only about $30 million remains available for other new programs. The Senate proposal would give its budget writers control over how that money is spent.
Taking the Senate’s offer would likely kill several education projects in the House budget. Those include a $12 million “school connectivity initiative” that would add broadband and wireless internet in school buildings; $1 million for a “charter school accelerator” to help launch new schools in rural areas; and $4.3 million for bonuses for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate teachers whose students score well on their exams.
Holloway said he views that as a reasonable trade. “I think we can live without these programs for a while longer,” he said.
The N.C. Association of Educators issued a statement late Monday voicing support for the Senate’s proposal. “NCAE clearly supports funding teacher assistants because it gives our students more opportunity for one-on-one attention in the classroom and helps them to be more successful,” association president Rodney Ellis said. “If this potential deal moves forward, it will alleviate some of the current fear parents have over the impact cuts would have on students and the tension of educators over the possibility of being on the unemployment line.
“We hope this is an indication the remainder of budget negotiations will result in a package of resources, including modern textbooks and technology, that will benefit our students.”
The potential agreement came after appropriations committee leaders met through the weekend to hash out spending details. Brown said the weekend talks were productive, and most remaining disagreements involve either education or health and human services. The current temporary budget runs until Sept. 18.
To meet that deadline, Brown said a preliminary budget deal “needs to be this week.”