North Carolina, a right-to- work state, doesn’t have teachers unions, but as teachers return to their classrooms this month they’ve never been more united.
In their recent session, lawmakers did nothing to lift North Carolina’s teachers from near the bottom of national pay rankings. They also cut funding for thousands of teacher assistants, allowed class sizes to grow and took away teachers’ basic protection against dismissal without reasonable cause.
Complaints about pay or being taken for granted are hardly new for teachers here or virtually anywhere in the nation. But the extent of those complaints among North Carolina’s more than 95,000 public school teachers feels broader than ever. Two weeks ago, a final Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh was centered on teacher issues and drew a massive crowd. At a western version of Moral Monday in Asheville last Monday more than 5,000 protesters turned out.
June Atkinson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction and a former teacher, said recently, “I am truly worried about the ongoing starvation of our public schools. I see other states making a commitment to public education. In our state I see in this budget we’re cutting teachers, we’re cutting teacher assistants, we’re cutting instructional support.”
What makes this neglect especially galling is that some Republican lawmakers deny it’s happening. State Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican, wrote recently that reports of reduced funding for K-12 education are fictions being spread by “professional educrats (education bureaucrats) and their buddies in the mainstream media.” He went on, “So where are these cuts? Good question. One can do a web search and find literally hundreds of liberal media articles and reports bemoaning non-existent budget cuts to education. Where is a truthful answer to our question?”
The truthful answer is that in dollars adjusted for inflation and the state's growth, North Carolina will spend $534 million less in the next fiscal year than it did in 2008, according to the N.C. Justice Center. It’s true that spending in raw dollars has increased, but it has not kept up with inflation and it has fallen behind the state’s needs as its population has grown.
Other GOP leaders acknowledge the shortfall, but say the dollars are not there to provide teachers raises and more state funding to local schools.
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said teacher raises weren’t possible because the legislature had to commit an additional $1.5 billion over two years to pay for Medicaid. But Berger also backed major tax cuts signed by the governor that will cost the state $500 million over the first two years and more than $2 billion in lost tax revenue over the next five years.
The truthful answer isn’t that North Carolina couldn’t afford to give money. It just couldn’t afford to give it to teachers.
The strength of resentment among North Carolina’s teachers is unprecedented. It’s hard to tell whether it marks the awakening of a movement for major improvements in North Carolina’s schools, or whether it is a cresting of outrage to be followed by teachers giving up and getting out.
Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said he sees many teachers who are fed up. “It’s disheartening to say, but there are a number of my colleagues who say they just can’t take it anymore,” he said. “I’ve seen good quality teachers depart for other places, or they’ve chosen to leave the profession altogether.”
But Ellis sees another response, too. “Looking at Moral Monday, there are a number of teachers who are ready to fight,” he said.
That fight may lead to legal challenges to the end of teacher tenure and whether current education funding meets a state constitutional requirement that entitles every child to a sound basic education. Ultimately, Republican lawmakers may be forced to see what they can’t see and pay for what they’ve chosen not to afford.