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NC activists fight to save specialty educators who play key role in shaping students’ success

by Brian Washington

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If you think courses like art, music and physical education don’t play a key role in a student’s academic development, then, clearly, you have not talked with Tamika Walker Kelly, a North Carolina elementary music teacher with 10 years of classroom experience.

In North Carolina, those who teach such courses are considered specialty educators. Walker Kelly says specialty educators offer students different pathways for academic success.

“We allow students to explore critical thinking skills in a special way—different from doing so by studying reading or math,” said Walker Kelly. “The content we teach has its own national standards and curriculum, but it also integrates with academic content areas across the board.”

When you listen to Walker Kelly speak, you easily connect with her passion for teaching, and she leaves little doubt that she has the wisdom, experience, and expertise to help students succeed. This explains why the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), which represents tens of thousands of educators across the Tar Heel state, recruited her to be part of a group that recently met with state lawmakers in Raleigh about the importance of funding for specialty educators.

In last year’s budget, the legislature approved legislation requiring school districts to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 in the 2017-18 school year. On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. However, they didn’t allocate the additional funding districts would need to hire more teachers to get class sizes down.

“It was an unfunded mandate because the trade-off was that to lower class size you would have to hire more classroom teachers and you would lose the funding flexibility to hire specialty teachers to cover art, music, and physical education,” said Walker Kelly. “Without these educators, a district loses the opportunity to educate the whole child.”

NC educator Tamika Walker Kelly

Enter House Bill 13, which was signed into law last month. While it gives local school districts one more year to meet the classroom requirements, it still doesn’t include funding for additional teachers, which is why educators say House Bill 13 is a stop-gap measure. They say the real solution rests with raising North Carolina’s average per pupil funding, which is estimated at $8,940, to the national average, $11,841.

We (educators) work hard to provide the best educational experience for our students,” said Walker Kelly. “The old adage is that teachers always do more with less. But the truth is our students can do more with more if we have the appropriate funding.

Earlier this month, during Teacher Appreciation Week, educators engaged in a “Week of Action” as part of NCAE’s “Schools Our Students Deserve” campaign. The Week of Action focused on two things: 1) getting the necessary funding to implement House Bill 13 appropriately and 2) raising the state’s per pupil spending to the national average.

In addition to the Advocacy Day Walker Kelly, other educators and parents across the state participated in, the campaign also included local legislative forums and “walk-ins” held at public schools throughout the state.

“The walk-ins were to invite parents and community members to come to a public school in their neighborhood and see all the wonderful things happening at that school,” said Walker Kelly. “Our schools are not failing children, and parents and community members need to see that. This way they can rally and help us get the schools our students really deserve.”

So what happens now? The Senate has already passed its budget and did not include funding for specialty teachers in it. The House is currently working on its version of a spending document. Once both chambers approve a budget, the two sides will come together to hash out a final spending plan. Walker Kelly is joining with Gov. Roy Cooper, educators and public school activists across the state in calling upon the legislature to invest more in public schools.

“And I do believe through the efforts of educators, parents and community groups, they will put more funding in the budget,” said Walker Kelly. “Because we don’t have to choose between class size and specialty teachers. We can have both in North Carolina because the funding is there. We just need to make it a priority.”

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