North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers don’t mind pushing teachers around.
They’ve refused to fully restore education cuts imposed during the Great Recession — almost a decade ago — stripped teachers of extra pay for advanced degrees, eliminated tenure protection for teachers hired since July 2013 and dismantled a pay scale that provided annual raises. Republican legislators also tried to bar the teachers’ lobbying group, the N.C. Association of Educators, from deducting dues from paychecks, but a court found that law unconstitutional because it unfairly targeted one group.
North Carolina’s tough treatment of educators and education has been a template for other Republican-controlled states: Cut taxes and sharply limit spending on a top expense — public schools. But now teachers in other Republican-controlled states are taking direct action against that model. In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and possibly soon in Arizona, teachers have walked out to demand more pay and better overall funding for public schools.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, called the walkouts “red states rising against the cuts and dismantling of public schools.”
North Carolina teachers, lacking union protection and still hopeful that the legislature may come through with more money, are holding off on direct action, but they are cheering on the red-state rebellions.
“I think it’s wonderful, powerful and amazing,” said Rahnesia Best, a fourth-grade teacher at Olive Chapel Elementary in Apex.
North Carolina teachers are not walking out — not yet anyway — but they are preparing to march in when the General Assembly reconvenes on May 16. The NCAE plans a major “Day of Advocacy” rally at the Legislative Building to demand better teacher pay for themselves and increased school funding overall.
Ironically, North Carolina teachers won’t walk out over low pay because they need the money.
Best, a teacher for 11 years, also works two other jobs. “Many teachers are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “You’re stuck between activism and ‘What am I going to do if I lose my job?’ ”
A state-by-state analysis of teacher pay adjusted for inflation published by the online news site VOX found that North Carolina teacher pay has dropped by 5 percent since 2009. Since 2009, North Carolina teachers’ average salary rose from $46,850 to $49,837. But when adjusted for inflation, the average salary has dropped from $52,472 to $49,837. Meanwhile, hikes in insurance premiums have further eroded their pay.
For school funding, it’s the same story. Before the recession, North Carolina ranked as high as 20th in per-pupil spending, according to a ranking compiled by Education Week. Now it ranks 40th.
Hannah Bethea, a Franklin County second-grade teacher who has been teaching for 13 years, said, “I always wonder what it would look like if they got rid of public education. We can’t do that because of the state Constitution, but we’re kind of seeing that.”
Bethea said she appreciates the modest pay increases of recent years, but it’s not all about salaries. Teachers take reduced pay, she said, in return for other benefits – such as tenure and health insurance after they retire – which are being taken away.
“It’s not that teachers go into it for the money. They go in for certain things that are now pulled back from them,” she said. “If you are a new teacher, why would you want to be one?”
State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who leads the House committee that oversees education spending, acknowledges that teachers should be paid more, but he wants more funding tied to measures that will improve results in the classroom.
“I’m very much aware that lots of jobs which we used to consider menial pay more than we pay teachers. That’s just wrong,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to raise the floor. But by the same token we have to find better ways to have our teachers be better teachers.”
Without more respect from lawmakers, North Carolina may soon be desperate to have any teachers. Period.