Newly elected education leaders pledge to resist privatization, say pandemic could change future of public schools

Newly elected education leaders pledge to resist privatization, say pandemic could change future of public schools

- in COVID-19, Education, Top Story
Tamika Walker Kelly (Left), Bryan Proffitt, (Right)

The N.C. Association of Educators had been taken over by “radicals.”

That’s what Tamika Walker Kelly began to hear, shortly after she was elected as president of the state’s largest teacher advocacy group last week. But Kelly, an elementary school music teacher in Cumberland County, takes issue with that description.

“Advocating for our educators and the things that our students deserve and making sure that we have public education is not radical at all,” Kelly told Policy Watch on Tuesday. “Making sure every child has access to a high-quality public education, making sure that educators are paid, making sure curriculums and academics center on all students, especially students of color, those things are not radical at all.” 

The results of the NCAE election were announced on Friday. Kelly, who also serves as vice president of the Cumberland County Association of Educators, defeated Kristy Moore, the current NCAE vice president. Kelly will replace Mark Jewell, who did not seek reelection.

Bryan Proffitt, a former Durham Association of Educators president and high school teacher, was elected NCAE vice president. Their terms begin July 1.

Moore pledged to support the new leadership in a video message Friday. “We are going to be in this together. We’re going to make sure the NCAE stays strong,” Moore said. “We’re going to keep fighting for our educators. We’re going to keep fighting for our children.” 

Proffitt said it’s critical that educators remain vigilant during the COVID-19 crisis to prevent public school critics from taking advantage of the pandemic to further their privatization agenda. 

“The privatizers are hungry right now,” Proffitt said. “They’re going to push online education, they’re going to push charters, they’re going push [the narrative] we didn’t need teachers in the first place. They’re going to do all that. They’re already doing it. Our side has to be willing to fight back just as hard.

Proffitt said lawmakers must focus on building new schools and renovating aging facilities.The public schools are the economic driver of our state,” Proffitt said. “If we give those tax dollars back that we gave away to wealthy people and corporation and invested them in public schools, that’s a whole different direction our state could choose,” Proffitt said. “Are we going to keep being the state that cut taxes and they claim we’re going to make economic gains by feeding wealthy people more of their money back or are we really going to invest in our people?” 

Walker and Profitt have used union-styled tactics to pressure lawmakers, even while working within the NCAE to change public education in North Carolina. The two co-chaired the NCAE’s Organize 2020 Racial and Social Justice Caucus, which helped to organize teacher walkouts in May 2018 and May 2019. The walkouts caused schools to close across the state when thousands of educators poured into downtown Raleigh to complain to lawmakers about school funding and teacher pay, among other concerns. 

The NCAE and the state’s Republican leadership have a rocky relationship, at best. Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham), was critical of the organization in advance of the 2019 teacher march and rally, charging that it’s a tool of the Democratic Party. “The special interest education lobby will say just about anything to convince you that Republicans hate education and Democrats love it,” Berger wrote in an opinion piece published by WRAL.com. “They do this because their primary motive is to elect Democrats, and to do that they need to mislead you into believing that Republican education policies have harmed our state.” 

But Proffitt said  that there’s support for privatization even outside the usual conservative circles. “The rise of charters and the privatization agenda found a lot of strength inside the Democratic Party, even in the state of North Carolina,” Proffitt said. 

Walker applauded the work of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 that is examining the impact of the crisis on K-12 education. But Walker said the General Assembly’s top leadership has been “largely silent” about the issues most important to educators during the pandemic: providing students with technology for distance learning, including broadband Internet access; and expanding Medicaid, which is particularly important during pandemic for low-income families. The group preparing to recommend responses to the crisis when lawmakers return to Raleigh next week. “It’s important to have really strong leadership, not only as we navigate the landscape as we move toward the 2020 election, but in the perspective of the global pandemic, and seeing how communities are turning to public schools for resources and connecting them to the things that they need,” Walker said. “This is a moment that could change everything for public education.”