RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina teachers didn’t win the pay hikes and other changes they sought last year, despite a rally that brought 20,000 people to the capital, but they believe their activism helped elect a more sympathetic legislature and will take to the streets again Wednesday.
Schools across the state have announced they will have to close as teachers, support staff and advocates press their demands in Raleigh.
Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said last year’s demonstration energized teachers to vote and help break the Republican supermajority in the state House and Senate.
“Last year, we changed some policymakers,” he said. “This year, we want to change some policy.”
Teachers in neighboring South Carolina also plan to rally Wednesday and Oregon teachers plan to gather next week as walkouts that began in West Virginia last spring continue across the country, including many that have proven successful.
In Los Angeles, teachers won promises for more counselors and nurses. In Denver, they got a revamped pay scale. And in West Virginia, educators who went out on strike again this year blocked a plan to create the state’s first charter schools.
In North Carolina, the list of demands this year includes Medicaid expansion, restoration of extra pay for teacher’s master’s degrees and a $15 minimum wage for support staff.
North Carolina’s superintendent of public education, Mark Johnson, criticized the organizers for scheduling the march on a school day, when classes must be canceled. In addition, students who depend on free or reduced breakfasts and lunches may not be able to get the food they need, he said, although some school parent-teacher associations packed meals for those students to take home Tuesday.
“We want to retain teachers and show them that they are appreciated,” he said. “But there are also organizations for whom this is political.”
Johnson and the organizers agree on some priorities, he said, such as higher wages, more investment in classroom supplies and school safety programs, fewer tests, and better professional development opportunities, Johnson said.
GOP lawmakers point to figures showing they’ve already made steady strides in per-pupil education spending and teacher salaries this decade.
The National Education Association, the NCAE’s parent group, estimates North Carolina’s average teacher pay this year will rank 29th in the nation, compared with 47th in 2013. But the NCAE and Cooper, a close ally, say pay for the most veteran teachers has barely increased.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also criticized teachers for leaving the classroom for their protest. Sabrina Jensen, who teaches students with severe disabilities in Blythewood, said teachers must get the attention of legislators. It seemed they were on board with significant improvements, but then backed off, she said.
“They need to see we actually mean it, and we’re not just talking to be talking,” she said. “They can’t pat us on the head and say things will be better, just be patient. … We’ve patiently waited all these years to be treated like professionals.”
North Carolina teachers wanted to schedule the rally as early in the budget process as possible, said Lauren Piner of Greenville, North Carolina, who teaches ninth grade world history. Even so, they missed the release of the House education budget, which came Friday and included language that would limit teacher leave days to certain events — protests not included.
One upside to last year’s rally was that more teachers began attending meetings of the local education board and county commissioners, Piner said.
Inspired by their colleagues in Washington and other states, Oregon teachers are planning a walkout on May 8, said Suzanne Cohen, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.
“Educators are at a breaking point,” Cohen said. “Schools are in crisis, and we are calling on everyone to support fully funding our schools.”
Erin Grace, a Spanish teacher at Rockcastle High School in Kentucky, credited the rank-and-file roots of the activism for successes in that state. The protests there last year continue to reverberate, with Gov. Matt Bevin sending subpoenas to several school districts seeking the names of teachers who might have used sick days to attend statehouse rallies.
“For whatever reason, the people on the ground finally see what is going on and took it upon themselves to get involved,” she said. “It’s not top-down. It’s bottom-up. At the end of the day, public education is not getting the support it needs to do the job that society needs us to do.”