After months of teacher unrest around the country, the national focus will turn to North Carolina on Wednesday when thousands of teachers greet returning state lawmakers by taking to the streets in Raleigh to demand better pay and working conditions.
More than 15,000 educators have signed up to attend the "March for Students and Rally for Respect," the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history. Event organizers hope the march will both bring more attention to education issues and help lead to changes in the Nov. 6 elections that will weaken Republican control of the General Assembly.
"It’s just one day of advocacy for our students that could impact public education policy for years to come, with Nov. 6 as the endgame to get public-education supporters in the General Assembly," said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, which is organizing the march. "We already have a pro-education governor."'
Republican lawmakers note that they've provided teachers with raises for the past four years, with another scheduled for 2018-19. But teachers say they're also marching to protest a general erosion of support for public education, from a shortage of teacher assistants and counselors to outdated textbooks and technology to increased demands on classroom teachers. There's no single clear demand for this legislative session, when lawmakers can make changes to a two-year budget approved in 2017.
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So many teachers from across the state requested May 16 off that at least 42 school districts, including the state's six largest — Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford County, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Cumberland County and Union County — have canceled classes for Wednesday. Around 1,043,000 students, or 68 percent of the state's public school students, will have Wednesday off.
The response from teachers and school districts is causing critics to say that the protest is a "political stunt" that is inconveniencing families. The N.C. Republican Party is derisively calling Wednesday "Teacher Walkout Day."
“I think they will see very unhappy parents who are sympathetic to their plight but who feel like they could voice their concerns in a different way that didn’t interfere with the instructional day," said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation. "Canceling class is bound to create some hardships for some public school families, especially people who have to forgo hourly wages to take care of their children.”
Regardless of your point of view, Wednesday's march is "unprecedented" for the state, according to Keith Poston, president and executive director of Public School Forum of North Carolina.
Poston says he sees parallels between teachers and the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse — people who thought they were alone and disregarded realizing there are others and that collectively they can get action.
"My message to our state leaders, Republican and Democrat, is listen to the teachers," Poston said. "Hear their concerns. Understand their concerns."
North Carolina's march comes after teacher strikes and walkouts earlier this year in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia led to changes such as pay raises and higher education spending. Like North Carolina, those are right-to-work states with weak or no official teachers unions and Republican majorities in the statehouse.
“North Carolina is a state that has many of the factors that do appear to be common across states that are having strikes or protests," said Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy.
Hansen places these teacher protests in the context of a national “war on teachers” narrative, fueled by working conditions declining, erosion of benefits and increased spending on charter schools and vouchers for families to attend private schools.
“It is a growing sentiment, and I feel like North Carolina is one of the places where that sentiment has become quite acute,” he said.
Walkouts and strikes in other states have provided momentum for North Carolina teachers to act, according to Justin Parmenter, a teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte who has been collecting and sharing information about the rally and teachers' concerns.
Parmenter said North Carolina teachers have seen counterparts in other states “winning real concessions.”
“I don’t think this would be happening right now if we didn’t have those examples," Parmenter said.
Jewell, the president of NCAE, said he's talked to the leaders of the teachers' groups in these other states as NCAE planned this year's march. NCAE has traditionally held a march when the General Assembly opens, but last year's drew only 150 people.
"We knew when we planned this event in February that we wanted this to be a much bigger event and to have a much stronger impact, and we knew we had an election Nov. 6," Jewell said. "We are at a crossroads in North Carolina where we can change public eduction policy for decades to come."
'Overwhelm the system'
The key for expanding the event was to use a provision in state law that gives teachers the right to take personal leave with at least five days' advance notice — as long as a substitute is available and the teacher pays a $50 "required substitute deduction."
"Our goal is to overwhelm the system with absences so that the district considers closing school for the day, allowing educators to go to Raleigh," says the May16.org website created by event organizers.
By canceling classes on Wednesday, school districts aren't requiring teachers to pay the $50 fee to take the day off.
While school leaders have cited the absence of teachers for the decision to cancel classes, many also share the sentiments of the marchers.
“To our teachers, I say this: I share your concerns," CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said in a statement announcing the closing. "I hear your voices calling for change and I know that you lift your voices not only for your own benefit but because you care about students, their futures and our community. …
"We have the chance to show our children, our students, our young people that we will stand up for them, that we care about their futures."
Wilcox said Tuesday that the response from employees and families has been overwhelmingly supportive.
Monika Johnson-Hostler, chairwoman of the Wake County school board, said she's seen a similar response.
Stoops of the Locke Foundation says school districts should have denied the requests for leave.
"Their weak-kneed response was to cancel classes rather than to ask teachers to take their political activities and do them on their own time or after the school year concludes," said Stoops, a former teacher. "There are plenty of options for allowing teachers to engage in political activities that don’t interrupt their classroom duties and responsibilities."
Principals had turned down some leave requests, although more than 2,500 were approved, according to Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman. Luten said school officials weren't sure if they'd have enough substitute teachers if additional teachers called in sick on Wednesday.
Wake school employees aren't required to give documentation if they only miss one day of work.
“We were worried that students could arrive at a building with not enough teachers to provide supervision," Luten said.
'Away from the madness'
Some teachers, though, are publicly distancing themselves from the rally.
"I will be in my classroom May 16 planning for the next school day and away from the madness in Raleigh," Durham teacher Terry McCann wrote in an op-ed piece. "I do not support the movement especially on the backs on our students."
The march has come under come under criticism from Republican leaders such as Senate Leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson.
"Teacher strikes are illegal in North Carolina, and in some respects what we’re seeing looks like a work slowdown, and looks like a fairly typical union activity, and the people of North Carolina don’t support that sort of action," said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican.
Some parents are not happy about the decision to close school.
"So we’re following the path of West Virginia and Oklahoma, holding our kids hostage in order to lobby for higher pay," Nick Douthat tweeted on Monday. "As a Cary Elementary parent, I’ve always tried to support my daughter’s teacher, but this makes it harder. ..."
Other parents have defended the decision to close schools.
"Way to go WCPSS!!!!" Amy Mangels tweeted Monday. "This family supports your decision and ALL of its teachers. We'll be there with you."
The closing of schools to accommodate the march means families are scrambling to find child care. It's also leading to some exams being rescheduled and some students likely going hungry. Some schools will remain open Wednesday to serve meals, but it will be up to families to get their children there to eat the food.
"We certainly understand the impact that this is having on our parents," Jewell said. "We’re asking for parents to be patient for one day because we are advocating for resources for their children.”
'It's a movement'
Whether the march has any impact after Wednesday remains to be seen.
Hansen of the Brookings Institution said the next steps will be important for North Carolina teachers because "they have a very short window of the public’s graces.” National polls show there’s strong support for teacher strikes, even in red states, but it can erode if they put too much stress on families by keeping kids out of school.
“That can easily burn up any good will that is benefiting teachers," Hansen said. "There’s a need to be strategic.”
Jewell said they don't plan to hold any more events like Wednesday that would result in schools being closed. But Jewell said NCAE plans to keep the issue of public education in people's minds between now and Election Day.
"May 16 is not a moment, it’s a movement," Jewell said. "It’s a movement forward for North Carolina's public schools.”
But Stoops is skeptical of the long-term impact of Wednesday's march. He draws parallels with the Tea Party movement, which grew rapidly and saw some initial success but faded away.
"In the short term they might have a slight impact in the November elections. But in the long term I don’t think this is the start of a sustained campaign to persuade the General Assembly to raise taxes on their behalf," he said.