Politics & Government

Advocating for ‘our children’ or a ‘Marxist’ event? NC’s upcoming teacher protest draws debate.

School districts across North Carolina are canceling classes for May 1 in advance of what could be a larger protest than the one that brought more than 19,000 people to downtown Raleigh last year.

The N.C. Association of Educators has urged school employees to request the day off, prompting districts such as Wake County on Wednesday and Charlotte-Mecklenburg on Thursday to say they won’t have enough substitute teachers to hold classes. All four of the state’s largest school districts have announced they’ll be closed May 1.

The rhetoric on both sides has ratcheted up. Supporters say bold action is needed again to pressure state lawmakers to make budget decisions on Medicaid and education funding that they think will help improve North Carolina.

“What’s the alternative?” said Angie Scioli, a social studies teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh and founder of Red4EdNC, a teachers group helping to organize the protest. “If we really think that teaching and learning conditions in North Carolina are not acceptable and we’ve tried negotiations and we’ve tried informing the public through article writing, I don’t know what they want teachers of good conscience to do. If not this, what?”

But critics charge it’s a socialist attack on Republican legislators that will inconvenience families by costing a day of school.

“On May 1, thousands of children will be forced out of the classroom and hardworking parents will have to find childcare or miss work — all so the far-left teacher strike organizers can try to elect more Democrats,” Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said in a Facebook post Tuesday.

Berger went on to promote the state’s increases in teacher pay and education funding. Critics say funding and pay still falls short.

Last year’s march in Raleigh was the largest organized protest by the state’s teachers. It resulted in at least 42 school districts shutting down for the day.

NCAE credits the protest with helping to motivate voters in November to break the Republican super-majority in the General Assembly. The group voted in March to hold another mass protest calling for:

Providing enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses and other health professionals to meet national standards.

Providing a $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, a 5 percent raise for all school employees and a 5 percent cost of living adjustment for retirees.

Expanding Medicaid to improve the health of students and families.

Reinstating state retiree health benefits for teachers who will be hired after 2021.

Restoring extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees such as a master’s degree.

“If we don’t want teachers to march May 1 and we want everyone to be in class, then pass these bills,” Scioli said.

Unlike last year, NCAE says it’s gotten permits to hold events at both Bicentennial Plaza in front of the Legislative Building and Halifax Mall behind the Legislative Building. Another group had gotten a permit last year to use Halifax Mall, forcing NCAE to squeeze people into the much-smaller Bicentennial Plaza.

Mark Jewell, president of NCAE, said this year’s protest has a broader representation of groups fighting for common goals. For instance, he said that postal workers from Charlotte are renting vans to come to the protest.

“This rally is a march for North Carolina,” Jewell said. “We’re really proud to be leading it.

“This is not a march for Democrats. This is not a march for Republicans. This is a march for our future.”

But almost as soon as the new protest was announced, critics attacked the decision.

The conservative Civitas Institute has questioned holding the event on May Day, a day associated with labor union events, and for using “Marxist symbolism” by having a red fist in logos promoting the event.

“They want to be disruptive,” said Civitas president Donald Bryson. “It’s not about parents or students. It’s about bringing a socialist labor union movement to North Carolina. That’s why it’s on May 1.”

Civitas and other critics of the march, including Berger and State Superintendent Mark Johnson, have also targeted how the protest could cost more instructional time for students who missed school due to Hurricane Florence. Civitas tweeted Tuesday that the march “makes life more difficult for hurricane victims.”

Civitas and Berger have also repeatedly used the term “strike” to describe the protest. North Carolina is a right-to-work state, so public sector employees like teachers are not allowed to strike.

“It’s still ridiculous that they’re shutting down schools,” Bryson said. “My personal opinion is that this would be a strike, a Class 1 misdemeanor under state law. But they’re getting cover from school systems by closing schools.”

Echoing Johnson, Bryson said that the protest should be held on a non-school day, such as in June, when it won’t affect classes or inconvenience families who have to find alternative childcare plans.

But Jewell said they need to do the event on a weekday in May during the early part of the legislature’s budget discussions.

“Some would want us to come (on weekends) when the General Assembly is not in session,” Jewell said. “We’ve tried before and nothing has happened.

“They’ve suggested we lobby during spring break or other times of the year and conditions have worsened. We are in a state of urgency.”

Jewell also said it is offensive to say that the march is Marxist. He said the red fist is a symbol used by civil rights groups.

“This movement is about solidarity for strong students and strong schools and strong communities,” Jewell said. “We will never apologize for advocating on behalf of our most precious citizens: our children.”

Despite NCAE saying the march is non-partisan, it’s generally been praised by Democrats and drawn concerns from Republicans.

“On May 1 NC’s teachers will be marching to the #ncga to encourage our lawmakers to stand up for teachers.,” Sen. Sam Searcy, a Wake County Democrat, tweeted Monday. “I proudly stand with the @ncae and will be marching alongside them. I encourage all of my fellow legislators to join us. #ncpol #ncae #Red4Ed”

But Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said NCAE is running the risk of wearing people out with yet another mass protest.

“I think a repeat of last year is counterproductive,” Horn said in an interview. “They’re taking a chance of not only alienating legislators who’ve traditionally supporting them. They’re also taking a chance of alienating the public.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.