A derecho of red shirts swept through Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday as thousands of teachers and their allies flooded the capitol, in defiance of the pouring rain, to demand better conditions in their state’s public schools.
In a march from the headquarters of the North Carolina Association of Educators to the North Carolina General Assembly—the origin of some of the most draconian cuts to public education the country has seen in the past decade—teachers, teachers’ assistants, counselors, parents, students, and others rallied. North Carolina became the sixth state this year to bear witness to a statewide action by educators after years of abandonment.
The NCAE said their initial estimate of attendance for the march was more than 20,000 people, and Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic governor who has had a fractured relationship with labor in his state, led off the afternoon rally in support of the teachers. “We trust you, our teachers,” Cooper said at the rally. “Now we need to put our money where our trust is.”
As the teachers marched down Salisbury Street in downtown Raleigh, they brandished signs calling for better funding for public schools and admonishing the state legislators who’ve long denied it to them. (“Successful protest is never convenient!”) Supporters, including parents and their students, lined the sidewalks to cheer them on, a sight reminiscent of a marathon. And it probably feels like one for the state’s teachers, who have been fighting the legislature for more funding after a decade of neglect.
While the state’s teachers have been inspired by recent “Red for Ed” teacher walkouts and victories in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, they’re pushing against an anti-labor culture that’s ingrained in North Carolina’s laws. Even Wednesday’s day of action—which wasn’t a walkout with an undetermined end, as with the other states—was met with a heap of vitriol unloaded on teachers from Republican legislators and the state’s conservative leaders. So while teachers are taking heart from Wednesday’s protest, they’re well aware they’re fighting an uphill battle against one of the most virulent right-wing legislatures in the country.
“We’ve dealt with a legislature that’s been hostile towards public education generally for the last eight years or so,” said Lee Quinn, a teacher and co-coordinator of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Broughton High School in Raleigh. “Many of us have tried speaking to boards and committees, and meeting with our legislators...and nothing is really working. The General Assembly just doesn’t listen to us.”
In 2010, Republicans rode a wave aimed at Obama and a corrupt state Democratic leadership, allowing them to take a supermajority in the House and Senate of the General Assembly, which they cemented with a healthy dose of gerrymandering.
Upon arriving just two years into the financial crisis, the conservative party took to slashing budgets. Public education was among the first institutions they gutted: Teacher salaries were frozen, dropping as low as 45th in the nation (most recently up to 37th), while tenure and salary bumps for those with advanced degrees were done away with. Statewide per-pupil spending is down, too; North Carolina trails South Carolina in that area by nearly $2,000 per student.
The state’s Education Lottery, a vehicle for the state to capitalize on its Powerball by tying it to public education, was installed in 2005 against the wishes of the state’s conservative legislators; it too was seized upon by the NCGA. According to WRAL, the breakdown of where the lottery’s revenue went in its first year looks like this: 40 percent to construction, 26 percent to pre-k education, 24 percent for additional classroom teachers, and 10 percent for college scholarships. A decade removed from that first lottery, school construction garners just 17 percent, followed by Pre-K at 13 percent—63 percent now goes to “basic school operations,” which means the salaries of non-instructional employees like janitors and bus drivers.
In addition to gutting school funds and teacher salaries, the GOP-fueled General Assembly, under the guise of “school choice,” began trying to chip away at the foundation of public education. They doled out vouchers to blatantly anti-LGBTQ religious private schools and nixed the cap on charter schools, both of which have led to resegregation in districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the second-largest in the state.
The NCGA, led by State Senate president pro tem Phil Berger and then-House Speaker, now-U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, also destroyed any hopes of attracting new, young teachers when it kneecapped the Teaching Fellows program. In its heyday, the Teaching Fellows program provided full university scholarships to North Carolina high school graduates in return for their contractual promise to teach in the Tar Heel State.
Fast-forward to the final Teaching Fellows, the class of 2011, the scholarship was down to $28,000 over four years, regardless of which program or university. According to WHQR, as of December 2017, enrollment in the state university system’s Schools of Education is down 30 percent since 2010. “That’s part of the goal of the legislature,” Quinn said. “They don’t want people choosing this career.”
Davie County High School history teacher Brooke Hartsell was a member of that final Teaching Fellows class. When she entered college in 2011, some universities were willing to double the scholarship, but Hartsell, like all Teaching Fellows, only got to rank her school options; she said she didn’t even rank UNC-Chapel Hill as her top option, yet that’s where she was placed by the Fellows program. But UNC didn’t license secondary education, so Hartsell was presented with an option: She could either change her plans and teach at a different level, or she could sign a contract with the state that said she’d get her Master’s.
North Carolina would not pay for that Master’s, and if she graduated early and tried to enroll in a Master’s program in her fourth year, she was disallowed from applying her remaining Fellows funding to that degree. Instead, the state would take that final semester’s money and keep it for itself.
“They fired all the people working for Fellows except for the individual university coordinators by the time I graduated,” Hartsell said. “By the time I sent my first proof of employment after I got my Master’s, it was no longer to the state of North Carolina, but to a third-party company who had just taken over check-listing that we were all still in this state. ”
The Fellows program, or at least a husk of it, is now being rolled back out by the NCGA—the new Teaching Fellows program will spend just $6 million to produce 160 teachers; the final Fellows class produced 500.
Likewise, the General Assembly has attempted to patchwork its way to a solution for current students and teachers. The class-size issue that dominated the fall and winter had some, but not enough, money thrown at it after everyone screamed at the NCGA; base salaries still top out at $51,300, despite North Carolina teachers leading the nation in certification.
Part of what makes the action on Wednesday so significant is labor’s stark disadvantage in North Carolina. Unlike West Virginia, which has turned red in recent years but has a long and rich labor tradition, the state government has been forcefully stunting North Carolina’s labor movement for decades.
In 1947, the state passed right-to-work legislation barring employers from requiring new employees to join a union, the brainchild of Texan white supremacist Vance Muse. (House Republicans tried to enshrine this in the state constitution last year, despite the fact that no North Carolina governor has publicly called for its repeal since 1949.) Twelve years later, North Carolina barred public sector unions from collective bargaining, a law which stands to this day.
And so in the absence of a union with the backing of the law behind it, the closest thing North Carolina teachers have is the NCAE, a professional organization whose mission is to be “the voice of educators in North Carolina that unites, organizes and empowers members to be advocates for education professionals, public education and children.” But despite the fact that no actual union exists, and the fact that this was a day of advocacy rather than a strike with no predetermined end, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from parroting a familiar line.
“Union County teachers choose to inconvenience near 30,000 parents in order to pressure the General Assembly to increase their pay!” Republican state representative Mark Brody wrote in a Facebook post last week. “Let’s call this what it is, Teacher Union thugs want to control the education process!” (Brody deleted it after being confronted by teachers on Wednesday.)
“We can’t be union thugs without a union,” said high school Spanish teacher Jamie Shell, who teaches in Buncombe County Schools just outside of Asheville. “That’s tough.”
The day before the rally, Shaun, a math teacher from Iredell County in western North Carolina who wasn’t comfortable using his last name or publicly identifying which school he works at, called Splinter at around 4 p.m. He was on his way to his second job. “I’m a server at a restaurant,” he told us. “And I also have a recording studio in my house, and record bands as kind of a third job.”
Fifty-two percent of the state’s teachers have a second job, per EdNC. Meanwhile, N.C. state superintendent Mark Johnson, who makes $127,000 a year, chided his workers when they called for more funding and raises, telling them $35,000 is “good money.”
Sarah Leary, a fourth-year theater arts teacher at T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville, said second jobs are a necessity for most young teachers she knows; she’s waited tables and worked as a freelance model on the side. “At the end of the day, teachers working extra hours somewhere else is just less time we have to spend improving the quality of education our students receive,” she said.
Jamie Shell, who has taught for 13 years, told Splinter she works at the box office for a stage theater. “I was working at the mall up until February, but I couldn’t take working six days a week anymore,” she said.
Just 42 of the state’s 115 school districts canceled school on Wednesday. In some cases, teachers had to effectively pay to attend the march. “Our school didn’t shut down so we had to take a personal leave day, which means they took $50 out of our checks,” Tonya Freeman, a business education teacher in rural Hertford County, said outside the legislature on Wednesday. “But I’m willing to pay the $50. We are important, and we do count.”
Local governments are expected to pick up the state’s slack on funding schools, despite the fact that the state constitution says that “the people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.”
“As far as resources go, textbooks aren’t really a thing,” Shaun said. “We don’t have the funding for them, and they’ve changed [the curriculum] every year over the last few years, anyway...a lot of our resources is good old Google.” (Iredell-Statesville Schools was a recipient of a federal Race to the Top grant in 2013, enabling the district to provide a laptop to every student and teacher.)
Wake County Public Schools is one of the better-funded districts in the state, and Quinn said there are still problems to be found. “As far as resources go, when I taught history for many years, kids are still using books I assigned in 2003,” he said. “Some textbooks are missing pages.” According to figures released last month by the National Education Association, North Carolina spends $9,528 per student; the national average is nearly $12,000.
For some teachers, these conditions have forced them to leave the state to look for other work, or to leave the teaching profession entirely. North Carolina’s attrition rate among public school teachers in 2017 was 8.65 percent, down just 0.3 from 2016’s rate of 9 percent, per the Department of Public Instruction. The majority of teachers who left their jobs did not leave the state entirely, but fled to urban areas from rural counties, where the local supplemental payments are lower or nonexistent. And the replacements aren’t coming for those rural districts: Schools in the counties of Anson, Hyde, Elizabeth, Martin, and Craven all had vacancy rates that ranged from 7.3 to 11.8 percent, across the board, as late as two months into the 2016 school year.
Leary, who’s leaving her school at the end of this year to attend graduate school, said she doesn’t expect to return to North Carolina to teach. “I fell in love with teaching at an early age. I think I made the decision in 6th grade and haven’t looked back,” she said. “I will always work in and around young people in some capacity, but without Master’s pay there is little incentive to return to NC. I love my job and my coworkers and my school, but it’s a poor choice financially to return.”
Teachers in North Carolina are well aware they’re part of the national movement that began in West Virginia in February. Some North Carolina teachers say that educators from those other states have reached out to them to offer support and advice.
“There’s a Facebook group for teachers in NC, tons of us are in there, but there have been people from Arizona specifically in this providing encouragement and keeping us in the loop, pushback they’ve been getting and helping us navigate things as they come up,” Shaun said.
But the challenges to labor in North Carolina are unique. “I can have Canadian money in my pocket, but I can’t spend it,” Quinn said. “I can belong to a public union, but we don’t have collective bargaining.”
Because the NCAE is the teachers’ best shot at getting a seat at the table in Raleigh, the organization has long been in the crosshairs of the state’s most important conservative voices. The NCGOP took its best shot at the group back in 2010, passing Senate Bill 727—the law, admitted to be an outright hit job by then-House Speaker Thom Tillis, stripped the group’s ability to automatically deduct dues payments from teachers’ paychecks, even overriding Governor Bev Perdue’s veto in a late-night session. (Thankfully, a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled the law violated the state constitution in 2012.)
Republican legislators, meanwhile, criticized the teachers for taking even one day to lobby for more funding for their schools. “It’s unfortunate that what is happening is inconveniencing so many students,” Berger told reporters at the General Assembly on Wednesday. “They could’ve organized this on a day after school...it’s unfortunate that they chose this time.”
But if yesterday was any indication, the tide could be turning. “As long as North Carolina is a right-to-work state, NCAE’s effectiveness is limited, and that’s sad,” Hartsell said. “But I’ve been impressed with the momentum...It feels like the real beginning of a movement, that it’s going to be top-down change when it comes to educational legislation in this state.”