Days before the new school year begins, teachers around North Carolina demanded Friday that state legislators do more to improve conditions in public schools.
Members from Red4EdNC, a statewide teachers’ group, presented Friday a list of grievances, including overly large class sizes and inadequate supplies. Teachers in 104 school districts signed the list, which the group is using as a basis for asking voters and lawmakers to “reverse the harmful course” the state has taken.
“We are here today to bear witness to some hard truths,” Angie Scioli, founder of Red4EdNC and a social studies teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, said at Friday’s town hall at Leesville Road High. “Learning conditions today for students and working conditions for educators are unacceptable in our public schools, including charters.”
Six other town halls were scheduled Friday in Buncombe, Forsyth, Macon, Mecklenburg, Pitt and Wayne counties. Several lawmakers had agreed to attend the meetings, but many canceled due to the last-minute special session called for Friday to work on state constitutional amendments.
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Supporters of the Republican-led General Assembly have tried to discredit Red4EdNC by charging that it’s part of a campaign by the National Education Association to promote a liberal political agenda.
“Next time you hear Red4EdNC, don’t think of that lowly overworked teacher,” Bob Luebke, director of policy of the conservative Civitas Institute, wrote last week. “Think National Educational Association and radical teacher’s union. There’s a reason why the name is hidden.”
Many of Red4EdNC’s leaders are members of the North Carolina Association of Educators, which is the local NEA affiliate. But Scioli said Red4EdNC is an “organic, grassroots” effort that’s not a front for any other group.
Republican legislative leaders have pointed to the increases in teacher pay and education funding that have been adopted since 2011.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that a politically-motivated organization is holding ‘town halls’ that don’t share all the facts in the run-up to Election Day,” Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said in a statement. “Before Republicans took control, the state’s education budget was in freefall — teacher pay was slashed more than any state in the entire country in 2010.
“Since then, we’ve upped education spending every single year — in fact, since 2000, Republicans have averaged greater year over year increases to education spending than Democrats did. And we did it while cutting taxes, balancing the budget, and securing the rainy day fund.”
But critics say the amount, when adjusted for inflation, is less than what was provided per student before the recession of the late 2000s.
Red4EdNC organizers say they are trying to channel the momentum from the May 16 protest when at least 19,000 teachers marched in Raleigh asking lawmakers to do more to support schools. Over the summer, the group encouraged teachers to sign their “Declaration in Defense of North Carolina’s Public Schoolchildren,” which is modeled on the Declaration of Independence.
At the town halls Friday, teachers gave examples of how they feel public schools aren’t getting enough support from the legislature.
Tommy Rebant, a fifth-grade teacher at Leesville Road Elementary School in Raleigh, charged that inadequate state funding for schools is creating a system of “haves” and “have-nots.” He said a 55 percent state reduction in funding for school supplies and materials since 2008 means teachers are paying out of their own pockets to give students what they need.
“Given the state’s constitutional mandate to educate all children, why is student access to and full participation in the educational program so dependent upon ZIP code and charitable giving?” Rebant said. “In short, it should not be.”
Wendy Kreitman, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Daniels Middle School in Raleigh, said there are now 3.5 percent fewer teachers per student than in 2008, leading her to have class sizes of between 31 and 36 students. She said this is hurting her ability to provide individualized instruction for students who need the most help.
“Student and teacher success in the classroom is greatly impacted by the ever-increasing class sizes,” Kreitman said. “With some classes nearing 40 students, how will we provide the best education for all of our children? How will we close achievement gaps?”
The Civitas Institute questioned how disgruntled teachers actually are, pointing to how 87.1 percent of the educators who took part in this year’s statewide Teachers Working Conditions Survey agreed that, overall, their school is a good place to work and learn. The survey also showed areas where teachers are worried, including how only 59.8 percent agreed that class sizes are reasonable and 75.5 percent said they have sufficient access to appropriate instructional materials.
At Charlotte’s event, which is scheduled for Friday evening, CMS teacher Justin Parmenter planned to talk about overcrowded classes, dilapidated school buildings and a dearth of money for school supplies and textbooks.
“We’ll be taking on all these challenges for pay that ranks 37th in the nation after another round of inconsistent raises that once again devalue our most experienced teachers and principals,” Parmenter, who helped organize the event, said in his prepared remarks.
Rebecca Costas, a teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Myers Park High, said the district’s back-to-school session for teachers this week was full of positive energy. “There was not a breath of cynicism among us,” Costas wrote in her remarks. “There was passion and reflection and genuine concern and care.”
But she said the supermajority in the General Assembly “has completely misunderstood and maligned what my profession is about” by focusing on budget cuts and standardized testing.
“If they really understood what we do, they would be rallying with us to tackle the big problems with our systems,” Costas wrote. “They would be championing us and empowering us with support.”