North Carolina’s public schools became the latest battleground in the fight over public education Monday as teachers rallied across the state to protest actions of the General Assembly.
At events held at schools, educators charged that decisions such as not giving a teacher pay raise and ending tenure are making them less likely to stay in the profession. Some Republican leaders voiced sympathy while others charged the walk-ins were a media stunt.
“We need to be heard,” said Tamiko Williams, a sixth-grade teacher at West Lake Middle School near Apex. “We know what’s best for the kids. We’re the ones in the trenches.”
Williams was among 130 teachers, parents, students and community members who wore red and marched Monday afternoon to a town hall meeting at West Lake Middle School. Similar teacher walk-in events were held before and after classes at several schools in Wake, Durham, Guilford, Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties.
In an interview Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, said teachers have “legitimate gripes,” but added that he didn’t know enough about the protest to say whether it was an appropriate tactic.
McCrory, who earned an education degree from Catawba College, formed a teacher advisory council Monday that is scheduled to meet Tuesday. “We need to come up with some legitimate and long-term solutions to a very difficult problem, which has been around a lot longer than my term in office,” he said.
Declining to provide specifics, McCrory promised new education proposals to support students and teachers soon. He said his administration is looking at teacher salaries and performance pay, but didn’t mention adjustments to per-pupil spending.
Some Wake County teachers had gone online to float the idea of having a walkout on Monday. But the N.C. Association of Educators urged teachers to instead hold walk-in events.
Among the issues raised at Monday’s walk-ins were:
• Teachers not getting a raise for the fourth time in five years.
• The phasing out of tenure.
• The coming elimination of extra pay for teachers who gain advanced degrees.
• The reduction in the number of teacher assistants.
• Elimination of class-size limits in grades 4-12.
• Creation of vouchers to allow low-income and special-needs students to attend private schools.
“I find myself hopelessly thinking about if I’ll be able to afford a home,” Emily Shropshire, a Wake elementary school teacher, said at Monday’s event at West Lake. “I’m at a fork in the road deciding whether I can live like that.”
Republican legislators say they’re trying to make meaningful reforms to the state’s public schools. But speakers at Monday’s events charged that the Republican-led General Assembly is destroying public education.
“The General Assembly has effectively undone 60 years of education progress in the the last six months, and they must be stopped,” said Vivian Connell, a teacher in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system and lawyer, at a noon rally outside the state Capitol.
Actions around Triangle
Connell was joined by about 100 people at the event organized by Public Schools First NC and the N.C. Justice Center. Members in the crowd held up signs with slogans including “Help Us Help Kids” and “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
In Durham, more than 200 parents, teachers, students and politicians stood on the steps of E.K. Powe Elementary School early Monday to talk about the importance of public education and to lament that the state’s per-pupil spending has fallen to 48th in a national ranking.
Public schools are under attack as never before, said Morghean McPhail, a fifth-grade teacher at Powe. “What we are fighting for matters,” she said.
Several students spoke about the benefits of public education and their experiences at E. K. Powe.
“Public schools are important because they have the door open for all students,” said Henry Lilly, a 10-year-old fifth grader. “They won’t turn you down.”
At Lacy Elementary School in West Raleigh, more than 200 people gathered for a pre-class rally. The event was originally scheduled to occur during school hours before Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, and Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, complained last week.
Suzzette Acree, a second-grade teacher at Lacy, teared up as she spoke about her own daughter’s considering a career in teaching.
“She said, ‘I made it seem like it wasn’t work,’” Acree said.
Several Democratic legislators attended Monday’s events as they also criticized the Republican-led legislature.
“These people perform valuable services to our students and train our future leaders and we should not short-change them,” state Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said of teachers. “The voucher system, the charter system, all of these are an effort to weaken our public schools.”
Republicans legislators defended themselves against the criticism.
Berger, the Senate president pro tem, charged that the “walk-in” events were a “PR gimmick” planned by the N.C. Association of Educators for political purposes.
“We don’t appreciate the bully tactics of an organized union that puts kids’ safety at risk to gin up its membership and inflate the salaries of its executives,” Berger’s statement said. “There is a time and place for everything – our schools are not the place for politics and our children should not be the pawns.”
Hunt called it “horse manure” to say that the legislature is destroying public education. “Education is an absolute priority for us,” he said.
Staff writers Jonathan M. Alexander, Lynn Bonner and John Frank contributed to this report