North Carolina Teachers Walk Out

 Seth Cline

RALEIGH, N.C. — THE initial plans called for a rally of around 500 people. Instead, at least 20,000 people showed up to protest teaching conditions on a muggy day in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday, the latest of a surge of teacher activism that has swept the country this spring.

More than 40 school districts across North Carolina cancelled classes for the rally – giving a million-plus students the day off from class – after the number of participating teachers oustripped the supply of substitutes.

Wednesday's rally in Raleigh makes it six states that have seen teachers protest their compensation en masse in recent weeks. And all of those states – Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado and now North Carolina rank poorly on teacher compensation measures, which are set by their legislatures instead of local school boards, says Mike Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Strikes happen all the time but typically those don't grab national headlines because they happen at a local level, as say this school board negotiates with that union," Hansen says.

"What's different here is the scale is remarkable and everybody's descending on a state capitols rather than advocating at local school board offices."

That activism has paid off for teachers so far. In West Virginia, teachers and other state employees received a 5 percent pay raise and a freeze on raising health insurance premiums after days of strikes shut down the schools. Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma secured raises as well, and those in Kentucky should see increases in per-student spending in the coming budget.

In North Carolina, however, teachers may not see the same results. Republican state lawmakers, who hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers, have all but settled on a new biennial budget, and many are quick to point out that teachers have already gotten pay raises – five in a row, if another is included in the coming budget as expected. That puts the estimated average teacher salary next year at around $53,000, good for 37th in the nation, depending on the calculation. Those at Wednesday's rally say that's not enough.

"Teacher pay is only one part of it. It's also lack of resources for students and staff, lack of support staff, lack of an idea of what it takes to run a school," says Cory Elvenstar, an English teacher from Union County, near Charlotte.

"They aren't putting public education as a priority but they still are holding us accountable for everything that happens," says Sara, a teacher from Wake County who declined to give her last name. "You can only do so much with what you are given."

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, echoed those sentiments Wednesday afternoon.

"We all know this is about far more than just about teacher pay. It's about respect. It's personal folks," Cooper said. "If I've learned anything from the hundreds of teachers I've met it's that teachers don't teach for incomes, teachers teach for outcomes."

Critics say Republicans aren't prioritizing education and have therefore wounded the state's reputation, but since taking over in 2011, Republican legislators here have increased spending on charter schools (despite Democratic opposition) and raised teacher pay across the board. At the same time they've angered teachers by ending tenure, eliminating the pay bump for teachers with master's degrees, and removing a cap on class size.

The state also ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending and average starting salary for teachers. And, as in the other states where teachers have protested, has passed a $3 billion tax that experts say cut could hamper state spending on education.

"In some states that war on teachers narrative doesn't feel genuine but in North Carolina it definitely does," Hansen says. "There's been a real reversal of that leader status it once had."

Still, in light of the recent pay increases, some say the teacher's arguments are more about the midterm elections in November than public policy.

"If they had been walking out four years ago they would've had more of a leg to stand on in calling this a policy rather than political protest," says Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"If [Democrats] can make the case that somehow Republicans are undermining public education they think it will be a catalyst for getting folks to the polls," Stoops says.

Many teachers brushed off accusations of partisanship.

"We work for the state government – our jobs are inherently political – so I think the actions today are inherently political," says Jamie Schendt, a social studies teacher from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. "But it's also doing what's best for our students and our classrooms and I think that's what's unified most of us who are here."

Even if the effort doesn't lead to more education funding directly, many hoped it would bring attention to the plight of teachers, in North Carolina and elsewhere.

"I'm hoping we have the states eyes on us. I hope we have the nation's eyes on us," says Elvenstar, the English teacher. "Like any other state that teachers have shown up en masse [we want] to prove that we're not okay with being treated like second-class professionals."

"We do an important job and our kids deserve better."

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