You could never tell from the political theater, dueling news conferences, marches and dire warnings about “union thugs” that there is broad bipartisan support in Raleigh for raising teacher salaries.
The thousands of teachers who streamed into downtown Raleigh on Wednesday in a massive red wave and the Republican-led legislature agree: North Carolina needs to do better by its teachers.
But that point seemed to be lost at times in Wednesday's hyper-politicized environment. Democrats say public education has been given short shrift from a tax-cutting legislature, and Republican lawmakers say they are not getting credit for all they have accomplished.
There are of course sharp differences over consequential issues surrounding the march: tax cuts versus greater spending on public schools; expansion of charter schools; and vouchers for private schools.
But the polarization is partly the product of a toxic relationship between the GOP-controlled legislature and the N.C. Association of Educators, a Democratic-leaning group that organized the march.
Wednesday’s event was in some ways the culmination of a seven-year feud between lawmakers and teachers. Since Republicans took control in 2011, the legislature has been trying to break the political power of the NCAE, which had close ties with Democratic former governors.
“We just wanna give them a little taste of what’s to come,” then House Speaker Thom Tillis – now a U.S. senator – famously told a House GOP caucus behind closed doors in 2011. The comment was inadvertently broadcast into the legislative press room.
Tillis was referring to a bill to bar the state from deducting the NCAE’s dues from paychecks – an effort to dry up the funding of a political adversary. The measure passed the legislature, was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, overridden by the legislature and finally declared unconstitutional by the courts.
The legislature soon found other ways to target the NCAE, such as cutting off funding for teacher training programs supported by the group, stripping away tenure from future teachers and ending extra pay for teachers who earn master’s degrees.
That history was evident Wednesday as thousands of teachers from across the state rallied outside the Legislative Building to paint a picture of a public school system that has fallen behind during the past seven years of Republican rule. They called for raising teacher pay and per-pupil spending to the national average and restoring teacher tenure and extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees.
Meanwhile, the backdrop for the rally is the November midterm elections, in which Democrats are trying to break the Republicans' veto-proof majority. The partisan tilt to the event was clear from the beginning, with Mark Jewell, the NCAE president, saying the teachers' group hopes to “change the players in the game.”
The rally has been cheered on by the Democratic Party and by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Not just about pay
“I think we have to vote them out,” Sylvia Perry, a veteran fifth-grade teacher at Forest View Elementary School in Durham, said of lawmakers.
Teachers said the event was about more than just a wage increase.
“People say, ‘Oh teachers are doing it for pay,’ ” said Ellen Lavery, a health and physical education teacher in Durham. “But that is just one little fraction of it.”
Alicia Jones, a Durham music teacher, said it was 96 degrees on Monday inside her window-less classroom at Carrington Middle School, which she said was built in 1954.
“We can’t keep patching up everything,” said Jones, who has been teaching 13 years. “If we are going to keep these old buildings around we are going to have to invest in them.”
Republicans offered a sharply different narrative – one of improving pay. Teacher salaries fell sharply during the recession to 45th in the nation but have since risen to 37th, according to the National Education Association.
After four straight years of raises with another scheduled for 2018-19, average Tar Heel teacher salaries have risen 12 percent, from $45,737 to $51,214.
The GOP hoped the teacher march would backfire with the public. Republicans sought to stir up parent resentment that at least 42 school districts shut down for the day because so many teachers were gone. They rented space at Coconut Charlie’s Bump N Bounce in North Raleigh for families whose children weren't in school. The banner over the entrance read: “Children Over Unions.”
Immanuel Jarvis, a Durham County father, criticized the timing of the march, saying it came during year-end testing.
“The right thing is to raise teacher pay and better conditions,” Jarvis said at a GOP news conference Tuesday. “What we are arguing is the timing. Doing the right thing at the wrong time is sometimes the wrong thing.”
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP, also criticized the rally.
“If parents don’t stand up and reject their children being used as political pawns in the Democratic Party’s efforts to elect Democrats this fall, they will forever be used as pawns,” he said.
The Raleigh march has echoes of what has happened in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and West Virginia, where fed-up teachers either walked off the job or marched on their state capitals. In each case, the confrontation has involved a conservative Republican legislature and teacher groups who feel they are being short-changed by tax-cutting, fiscally stringent policies.
The Republican anti-NCAE rhetoric has hardly cooled in North Carolina over the years. The other day, Rep. Mark Brody of Union County denounced “teacher union thugs” who “want to control the education process.”
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham attorney, said ‘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.”
Union-bashing is a venerable tradition in North Carolina, the state with the nation’s lowest rate of unionization. But the NCAE, founded in 1970 with the merger of white and black teacher groups, is not a union in any accepted definition of the term.
In a right-to-work state, North Carolina teachers cannot engage in collective bargaining over wages or benefits, cannot strike and do not enter into contracts.
The NCAE is, however, affiliated with the National Education Association, which is a union. (The GOP this week was circulating a memo from an NCAE social activism caucus, which described what they were engaged in as “union activity.”)
Unable to bargain collectively with local school boards or the state, teachers have attempted to win support for better wages and working conditions by legislative lobbying and trying to elect lawmakers friendly to public education. Dozens of special-interest groups in North Carolina do the same thing – from doctors to truckers.
There is a long history of teachers coming to Raleigh to press for better wages and conditions. As far back as October 1933, the NAACP held a conference in Raleigh attended by 2,500 mostly African Americans to demand equal funding for black education and black teachers.
George Streater, one of the organizers, called the event “by far the most significant gathering of colored people ever held in the South.”
Long history of underfunding schools
More recently, what has particularly drawn the Republicans' ire, is that the NCAE’s political arm has overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates. That has not always been the case.
In the 1972 race for governor, while the NCAE was officially neutral, major teacher leaders backed Jim Holshouser, a moderate Republican. The NCAE declined to endorse Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt in his 1984 Senate race with Republican Jesse Helms because the group was upset over small salary increases.
North Carolina, historically a poor state, has always underfunded its public schools compared to the rest of the nation – that was true 100 years ago and that is true today. It was true under Democrats and is true under Republicans.
The Tar Heel State is still 25 percent below the national average on per-pupil spending and 16 percent beneath the national average on teacher pay.
Those figures won’t be affected by partisan wrangling, finger pointing and name calling.