Teachers demand policy changes, cheer Cooper at unprecedented education rally

Teachers demand policy changes, cheer Cooper at unprecedented education rally

- in Education, Top Story
(Photo by Billy Ball)

“Here for our kids” is the common refrain as 20,000+ marchers overrun downtown Raleigh

On Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger—one of the state’s most powerful Republican politicians—told North Carolina’s teachers they’d soon be receiving their fifth consecutive round of raises.

Emily Rex heard Berger’s promise. But the fifth-year, special education teacher—who lives in Berger’s state Senate district in Guilford County—points out she’s received raises in four of the last five years, not that she could much tell after soaring health premiums took their toll.

Rex said she completed her taxes in April. And over the last five years, her take-home earnings have inched up by about $1,000. “Any increase that we’ve had has been consumed by higher payroll deductions,” she said.

Guilford County teacher Emily Rex (Photo by Billy Ball)

But pay is just one of many reasons Rex came to Raleigh Wednesday. The state’s overall spending on public schools is insufficient, she says, and it’s yielded, in some cases, dismal working conditions and jam-packed classes.

Five years ago, Rex said she taught only about five students. Today, she said her special education classroom includes 12 students with varying needs and abilities, a tall task for any special education teacher.

“For me, it wasn’t a choice to come here today,” said Rex. “This is about my kids. If there’s any way I can make things better for them, if I can make their educational experience better, this is what I have to do.”

Rex joined an estimated 20,000 protesters, demanding sweeping North Carolina investments in classroom supplies, K-12 infrastructure, personnel, and school support staff like nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists.

It was an unprecedented display in Raleigh, with a seemingly interminable procession of educators clad in red snaking from the N.C. Association of Educators’ (NCAE) downtown Raleigh office on South Salisbury Street to the Legislative Building on Jones Street.

The throng wound its way down Fayetteville Street, while miniature drum lines and marching bands kept pace. “Red for Ed,” they chanted, holding aloft homemade signs with pointed messages for North Carolina lawmakers, who gaveled in their “short session” with a brief session Wednesday afternoon while teachers crammed the galleries.

The march drew scores of teachers from most North Carolina counties, organizers said, shutting down 42 of the state’s 115 school districts and leaving the majority of North Carolina’s 1.5 million schoolchildren out of class Wednesday. It was a point that top Republicans in the legislature criticized in recent days.

In districts that did not close, teachers would have to take a personal leave day to attend Wednesday’s march, a designation that requires that a substitute be available and, controversially, that the teacher forfeits $50 from their paycheck.

Wayne County teachers Sadie Simmons (L) and Belinda Cannon (R) used a personal leave day to attend the rally. (Photo by Billy Ball)

Belinda Cannon, an 18-year, exceptional children teacher from Wayne County, used a personal leave day Wednesday. She said the lost cash was worth it.

“We want funding for our schools and funding for our kids,” said Cannon. “We need to be here.”

Teachers wrapped their day of advocacy with an afternoon rally that featured an appearance from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Teachers say they want to harness momentum from teacher uprisings in states like Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma to pressure North Carolina lawmakers into major changes.

“How do you think it makes us feel when you’re paying out of your pockets to fund your own classrooms?” said Sadie Simmons, a 42-year, kindergarten teacher from Wayne County. “These legislators go in, they don’t have to bring pencils and papers and things like that. They don’t have to bring in their own laminators. They don’t have to bring in their own copies. We have to do that.”

Legislators are expected to work quickly on the Fiscal Year 2019 state budget, with Senate and House leaders announcing last week that they’ve already agreed to a nearly $24 billion spending target.

Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, touted that agreement in a press conference Tuesday, noting budget leaders had agreed to an average 6.2 percent raise for teachers in the coming year.

Berger and Moore said North Carolina teacher pay was among the fastest growing in the U.S. in 2017, according to a report from the National Education Association (NEA), although the state has still seen one of the nation’s sharpest drops from 2009 through 2018 when adjusted for inflation.

North Carolina teacher pay is expected to rank 37th in the country and sixth in the southeast this year, although it reached as low as 48th in the country in 2012-2013 under Republican leadership.

The state’s per-pupil spending, meanwhile, ranks 39th in the country this year, according to the NEA report, although it was among the lowest in the nation in recent years.

North Carolina’s average teacher pay, which just exceeds $50,000, is about $9,600 short of the national average, while per pupil spending lags the national average by about $2,400 per student.

“We believe that growth is what matters most,” Moore said this week.

Cooper’s office pointed out Tuesday that the teacher raises were already scheduled to go into effect with the start of the new fiscal year July 1. The governor’s plan, which will likely struggle to find traction in the Republican-dominated legislature, would include an average eight percent raise for teachers, with no educators receiving less than a five percent bump.

“We trust you as teachers,” Cooper told educators during Wednesday afternoon’s rally. “Now we need to put our money where our trust is.”

Cooper’s budget would also spend $75 million on classroom space needs created by a state mandate for districts to reduce elementary class sizes, as well as $25 million to address lagging textbook and digital material funding. The plan allocates another $50 million on school nurses, social workers, psychologists and school resource officers, areas where experts say North Carolina has failed to keep pace with enrollment growth.

The governor’s budget pays for the new expenses by freezing GOP-approved tax cuts for corporations and high earners, although Berger and Moore promised this week that they would not support any such freeze.

NCAE President Mark Jewell hammered GOP legislators for those tax cuts Wednesday, urging policymakers to aim for the national average in teacher pay and per-pupil spending, something critics say can’t be done with the cuts spurring billions in lost tax revenues each year.

“We need our legislators to start focusing on classrooms and not on corporate boardrooms,” Jewell said.

Aged, outdated textbooks was another chief concern of those demonstrating Wednesday. (Photo by Clayton Henkel)

The NCAE is technically a nonpartisan group that advocates for educators, although it’s tended to support Cooper and Democrats in the General Assembly. At times Wednesday, the rally took on the tone of a campaign rally, with teachers chanting Cooper’s name and offering blistering criticism of top Republicans.

Teachers say the spending gaps in North Carolina schools manifest themselves most in the classroom. Sari Diaz, a first-year teacher in Onslow County, said Wednesday that teachers are spending hundreds or more dollars every year on classroom supplies and curriculum support.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Diaz said, although she added that it’s not enough to keep her out of a classroom.

“This is my passion,” she said. “I love it, it’s what makes me happy.”

Shannon Bellezza, a former teacher who now instructs future teachers at N.C. State University, said many educators want out of the profession because of the “terrible teaching conditions.” Indeed, UNC system leaders reported a significant drop in those seeking teaching degrees in recent years, something that educators say could be addressed by better pay and benefits.

A K-12 expert told a state panel this year that North Carolina teachers earn about 67 percent of what their college educated peers make in a year.

“Treat teachers like the professionals they are,” said Bellezza. “Pay them accordingly; give them the resources so that they can do their jobs.”

Bellezza carried a sign Wednesday that read, “Where’s Mark?” She said the sign was a reference to N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016 who she described as a “puppet.”

Johnson says he supports teacher raises, but he said that he doesn’t want districts to cancel instructional time to allow for protests like Wednesday’s march. It’s a position that’s clearly rankled some teachers. The superintendent wasn’t in Raleigh for Wednesday’s march and rally, reportedly traveling to Craven County on the coast to meet with local officials.

Rex said she understands leaders who questioned school cancellations for Wednesday’s protests. She called it a “dilemma” for her. But ultimately, Rex said Wednesday’s march has the potential to do much more good for students than harm.

“To be here and advocate for my students is more important,” she said. “I need to be here to fight for them, because they can’t fight for themselves. And if anybody can fight and advocate for them, it’s the teachers.”