RALEIGH, North Carolina — Completing North Carolina's extended budget negotiations appears largely hinged on settling on a number for teacher pay raises.
The more fundamental difference between the House and Senate, however, centers on whether to pay for public school personnel who work with teachers in classrooms.
Budget writers still disagree on how much should be spent for teacher assistants, which in turn affects their teacher pay proposals. Senators originally wanted average teacher pay increases above 11 percent, while the House proposed 5 percent. The gap has been slowly narrowing in sporadic talks going on for a month.
The Senate originally located $233 million for its teacher raises by eliminating all funds for school districts to hire teacher assistants in second and third grades, allotting money only for kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. House Republicans didn't touch the teacher assistant money. The original Senate plan would have eliminated funding equal to 7,400 assistant positions.
Assistants "are certainly important to us here in the House," said Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Gov. Pat McCrory has threatened to veto anything similar to the Senate proposal.
According to educators, the competing plans reflect the dwindling places lawmakers can go for school spending cuts after reductions occurring under Republican and Democratic General Assembly leadership.
Lawmakers sent $454 million to the 115 school districts for teacher assistants during the past fiscal year. Lawmakers have proposed occasionally since 2005 to scale back assistants' funds, but it didn't actually happen until last year — a 21 percent decrease.
"Almost every other allotment has been trimmed as much as it can," said Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the North Carolina School Boards Association, citing instructional supplies, textbooks and administrative staff.
Senators often cite a multi-year Tennessee study from the late 1980s called "STAR" in defending their shift away from assistants and toward aggressively funding teacher pay. The report found while students benefited on achievement measures in grades K-3 from smaller class sizes, the effect of a full-time assistant "on student outcomes is less powerful and less consistent."
The teacher assistant "model gives us results where at least half of our kids aren't reading proficiently," said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, adding that assistants haven't "really functioned as well as people keep bragging about."
Educators say the STAR study is less useful today and occurred before minimum education standards rose for assistants nationally.
Wayne Journell, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said it's almost universally accepted that a lower student-instructor ratio is best for student achievement. So if the number of teacher assistants fall, Journell said, the state would "definitely see a drop in quality of instruction."
Assistants are now taking on new classroom responsibilities, often working in tandem with teachers to help students reach new reading proficiency requirements, local superintendents said at a House budget committee meeting this month.
"They are a team," Dare County Schools Superintendent Sue Burgess, adding that a significant loss of assistants "would be a tremendous blow to instruction."
Senators say districts don't back up their support for assistants with how they spend their allotment for those positions. The legislature gives administrators latitude in how to spend the money. About 20 percent of the 2013-14 funds had been used elsewhere as of mid-May, including classroom materials and paying teachers, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
Senate Republicans have offered restoring funds for second-grade assistants as a compromise. Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said the fight over teacher assistants would be eased if Republicans had declined last year to reduce income tax rates markedly for large corporations and rich wage earners, which led to fewer revenues.
"We can't forget they painted themselves in this corner," Stein said.
Tijuana Greene of High Point, a teacher assistant for nearly 20 years, said colleagues are discouraged by the debate over their positions, which she says are vital for students.
"A teacher can't do it all," Greene said.