This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Parents and teachers lobbed questions for almost two hours Thursday night at state Rep. Edgar Starnes, a Republican who represents Caldwell County in the N.C. House of Representatives, during a meeting of the Hibriten High School Parent Teacher Association.

Many in attendance were teachers or teacher assistants from schools around the county. They were tough on Starnes, with some raising their voices as they asked him about funding for teacher assistants, charter schools, private-school vouchers, teacher pay and other issues.

Several times, Starnes referred to the state budget passed in July – which he voted to pass – as a “bad budget.” He said it was not balanced, but he chose to support it because it was the prevailing plan of Republicans in the General Assembly.“I voted for it because I did,” Starnes said. “And I’m guilty, and that’s part of the record. You’ll have to judge me based on the record.”

Carly Schwartz, a third-grade teacher at Davenport A+ School, asked Starnes if he voted “on a party line issue” and “not what was in your heart.”

“That’s exactly right,” Starnes told her.

Attendees spent perhaps the most time questioning Starnes on the issue of teacher assistants. The state budget cut funding for second- and third-grade TAs.

Teachers in the room asked Starnes if he knew how difficult it was to give one-on-one assessments to students with no teacher assistant to supervise the rest of the class. Laura Shatley, a teacher assistant for special-needs students at Hibriten High School, asked Starnes if he knew what teacher assistants did, saying she plays a variety of roles in her students’ lives, from feeding and changing diapers to physical therapy.

“I feel that we serve as the most effective and major influence in their life, so before you vote, or anyone votes, on how needed I am in the classroom, I strongly urge that you come spend the day with me,” Shatley said. “And when you come home, be glad that you did all of that for $54.95 a day.”

Zerden Keller, a third-grader at Davenport, stood to speak, telling Starnes it was “hard for teachers to do it all by themselves.”

“When the teacher needs help, she can’t get help from another teacher, because there’s not another teacher,” Zerden said.

David Colwell, the principal of Hibriten High School, asked Starnes for his personal feelings on teacher assistant cuts.

“How do you feel personally about that?” he asked. “How do you personally feel about that $800,000 cut to teacher assistants? Not how the governor feels. Not how the legislature feels. How do you feel about it?”

Starnes, whose sister is a teacher assistant for special-needs students in Wilkes County, responded by saying he understood the need for teacher assistants in the younger grades.

“I’ve never taught in the public schools, but I’ve taught Sunday School in the smaller grades,” he said. “I’ll tell you, you’ve got your hands full.”

He added that he felt Caldwell County Superintendent Steve Stone and the local board of education had managed the budget well and commended them on ensuring that no teacher assistants were laid off. (The local school board is using its fund balance to maintain positions until they are vacated by retirement or relocation.)

Starnes defended some aspects of the budget, particularly those related to school choice. The legislator, who has a child enrolled in private school in Hickory, said he supports school vouchers and charter schools.

“We don’t have any charter schools in Caldwell County, but I’m hoping that one day we will,” he said. “I think charter schools are a good thing. Remember, charter schools are still public schools. They’re just not the traditional public schools.”

Starnes also defended the state’s spending on public education overall, saying that due to declining enrollment in Caldwell County, per-pupil spending actually increased from 2012-13 to 2013-14.

When asked about master’s degree pay raises, which the legislature eliminated for teachers who did not finish their degrees by April 2014, Starnes said several times the decision was “wrong.”

“In my opinion, that was just a mistake,” he said.

Starnes said he was confident the issue of pay for master’s degree would be resolved. Gov. Pat McCrory has said his budget office “found” $10 million to provide pay increases to the 3,000 teachers who have already enrolled in graduate school, but that will require approval by the General Assembly in the session that starts in May.

The atmosphere, throughout the meeting, was intense. Starnes’ statements were often met with murmurs of, “Why’d you vote for it, then?” in the audience. But as it came to an end, most in the audience applauded, and several teachers in the audience thanked Starnes for being willing to attend.

Starnes told them he’d come again if invited.

“I’m always willing to talk to the people,” he said.