“Remember, remember, we vote in November!” teachers shouted in May as they marched on the streets of Raleigh and in the General Assembly’s gallery, drowning out state lawmakers as they opened the legislative session.
Organizers of the historic May 16 teachers march in Raleigh say the words of the protesters became reality this week when North Carolina voters elected enough Democrats to break the Republican supermajority in the state legislature.
The May march marked the start of a months-long effort by the N.C. Association of Educators to elect enough “pro-education candidates” so that Republicans won’t have large enough legislative majorities to block vetoes from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
“When we had the March for Students on May 16, we wanted to make it perfectly clear that all of our priorities were not a short-session General Assembly request but a six-month stretch to Election Day,” said Mark Jewell, president of NCAE, the largest group representing North Carolina teachers and other school employees.
“We feel like the citizens of North Carolina stood up and said what the current supermajority is doing is not the North Carolina way.”
There’s speculation on the impact the election results could have on education spending and policies now that Republicans will have to work with Democrats to get legislation passed.
“It’s a revenue issue,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the conservative John Locke Foundation. “Whether Republicans are willing to raise taxes is the issue that will determine the magnitude of increases in teacher pay and per-pupil expenditures.”
The situation was different before the election, with Republican lawmakers promoting record levels of spending on education and five consecutive years of teacher pay raises.
But critics, including NCAE, argued that the amount is less than what was provided before the recession of the late 2000s, when adjusted for inflation. They also argued that highly experienced teachers were seeing little of the increases in pay.
To kick off the election campaign, NCAE organized the May rally that brought at least 19,000 teachers and public-education supporters to Raleigh. The event caused at least 42 school districts that educate more than 1 million students to cancel classes for the day.
The offices of Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore did not immediately return a request for comment for this story. But on May 16, Berger accused teachers of “inconveniencing so many students” by holding the protest on a school day.
Stoops said the march may be a factor in why Democrats did so well in urban and suburban areas. In Wake and Mecklenburg counties, Democrats won nearly all of the state legislative races, knocking out several incumbent Republican lawmakers in the process.
“Folks in those areas who saw perhaps even firsthand the May 16 event and may not have been aware of the discontent among some North Carolina teachers probably considered that when they went to the polls,” Stoops said.
The march helped personalize the concerns teachers had, according to Matt Ellinwood, director of the Education and Law Project at the liberal N.C. Justice Center. Instead of just seeing NCAE complaining, Ellinwood said, some voters connected the issue to someone they knew, such as their own child’s teacher.
“When people saw it was their own teacher, someone in their own community ... it was very powerful,” Ellinwood said.
As part of NCAE’s post-march push to the election, the group encouraged teachers to become involved in the political process to support legislative candidates.
Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher, was among the educators who came to Raleigh for the May protest. But he also stayed involved after the march, including hosting an event in October for Rachel Hunt, the Democrat running against Republican state Rep. Bill Brawley in Mecklenburg County.
Parmenter said the event with Hunt was meant to help voters see the kinds of candidates that teachers support. Hunt, the daughter of former Gov. Jim Hunt, narrowly trails Brawley with the ballots still being counted.
“It was pretty clear that teachers were following the adage if you don’t like the policy, you change the policy makers,” Parmenter said.
On Election Day, Gov. Cooper called Jewell to thank NCAE for its work in the election campaign.
“On Tuesday, voters sent a clear message that they want their elected leaders to work together and focus on the issues that matter to them,” Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper, said in a statement. “No group spoke louder over the last year than North Carolina’s educators — who marched on the General Assembly to stand up for better pay and more respect — and Governor Cooper will continue to work to make sure they are heard.”
Now that the political landscape has changed, Jewell said NCAE is looking for the legislature to do things such as increase per-pupil funding, provide more money to hire school counselors, social workers and nurses, and increase spending on instructional supplies and textbooks.
Jewell said NCAE also wants legislators to restore providing additional pay for teachers who have advanced degrees and to develop a strategy for paying teachers that also rewards experienced educators. He said the group also wants lawmakers to include school support staff, such as bus drivers and teacher assistants, in the state’s promise to provide its employees a $15 minimum wage.
“We have Republican friends who support public schools in the House,” Jewell said. “We think with some bipartisan collaboration that we can definitely see some movement on student resources and educator pay. We intend for this to be a reality.”
Stoops of the Locke Foundation and Ellinwood of the N.C. Justice Center said Democrats could press Republicans to put more regulations on private schools that receive voucher money and on charter schools. They said that Republican lawmakers who have significantly expanded school choice programs may be pressured to back away from increasing funding for them.
But Michael Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said he’s confident that lawmakers won’t want to cut back on choice programs being used by so many students. He noted how the state’s cap on charter schools was lifted in 2011 when Democrat Bev Perdue was governor and the Republicans only had simple majorities in the legislature.
“If there’s any talk about slowing down or backing down on these programs, what we are going to tell these families?” Long said.