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Defending public education

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, which parodies the iconic advertisement for the movie Jaws. It brilliantly depicts the N.C. legislature as the man-eating great white shark lurking in the waters ready to devour public education. John Cole, the artist, 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.

Arika Herron’s front-page news story, “Teaching assistants ‘under attack’” in the same edition of the Journal states, “By some estimates, the Senate cuts could mean as many as 8,500 fewer teacher assistants in elementary classrooms” in the state of North Carolina.

While study after study published by leading education scholars preach that reaching students early in their academic lives is most crucial for success in high school and life, our legislature is actually promoting the largest layoff in state history.

As a voter, I am disappointed that the last three years with this GOP-led legislature has fostered a calculated attack against public schools with more power and money given to entities to privatize education. By eliminating teacher assistants, the legislature would simply weaken the effectiveness of elementary schools further and help 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 7-year-old, red-headed, blue-eyed son, who happens to have Down syndrome, 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. Last month in the News and Record of Greensboro, state 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 give more students like my son the opportunity to learn. Sen. Apodaca suggests 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.

Sen. Apodaca and his constituents should already know the value of assistants. He himself has three on staff, according to the current telephone directory of the General Assembly. Sen. Phil Berger has 15 staff members, three with “assistant” in their title and five with “advisor.” Maybe dismissing some of these “assistants” would offer 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.

And we already have had too many shark attacks in North Carolina.

Editorial Note: This op-ed was published in the Winston-Salem Journal on July 12, 2015. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.


Stuart Egan

Stuart Egan is an English teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston Salem, North Carolina.