This year’s NC teachers rally is about much more than teachers

The General Assembly’s Republican leaders received a lesson last year from thousands of teachers, but they still don’t get it. So on May 1, North Carolina’s public school teachers will try again to explain what public schools need and what the legislature is failing to provide.

Last year, more than 20,000 teachers and their supporters formed a river of discontent that flowed down Fayetteville Street to the State Legislative Building. The second protest may be even bigger.

Why do Republican lawmakers need to be told twice? Because they’re being told what they don’t want to hear. The teachers’ message is this: You have chosen to cut taxes — mostly to the benefit of the wealthy and large corporations — instead of adequately funding public schools.

Republican leaders dismiss that charge. Yes, they cut taxes, they say, but they’ve also increased school funding. They point to a series of pay raises that have lifted the state’s average teacher pay in national rankings from 47th to 29th. But the problem with school funding isn’t as simple as those rankings. That’s why teachers feel compelled to explain it again.

Let’s start with teacher pay. It’s getting better, but there still are serious shortfalls. The increases came after several years of no raises and are more about catching up than moving ahead. The recent raises also focused on starting teachers. Veteran teachers got little, and the basic state pay scale still tops out after 25 years at $52,000. (Teachers with a national board certification can earn up to $58,240.) Actual pay can vary widely depending on a school district’s local supplement, but many teachers work second jobs.

Despite their lagging pay, the teachers who will come to Raleigh will not be coming for themselves. They will be coming for their schools. North Carolina is neglecting them. In 2018, North Carolina’s per-pupil funding ranked 39th in the nation. In terms of per-pupil spending, North Carolina has gone backward. Over the past decade, per-pupil spending went from $8,867 ($10,483 in today’s dollars) to $9,528.

That low spending shows up in much more than teachers’ salaries. A key theme of the May 1 rally is a call for more support for school support personnel. The legislature recently approved a $15 per hour minimum wage for state employees, but school employees were not included. That makes it difficult for schools to hire for positions such as bus drivers and custodians. Meanwhile, North Carolina public schools rank near the bottom of the nation in the ratios of nurses, counselors and psychologists to the student population. For instance, the nationally recommended school social worker ratio is 1:250 while North Carolina’s average ratio is 1:1,427.

In addition, teachers are pressing the legislature to expand Medicaid to improve the health of students and parents from low-income families. Teaching children from families that lack basic resources is tough enough. When the child’s home life also involves a parent who can’t afford needed health care, the challenge grows. Expanding Medicaid, as 36 states already have, would be an indirect investment in education.

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said 23 school districts representing more than half the state’s public school students will be closed on May 1 because so many of their teachers will be in Raleigh. He expects the turnout to be bolstered by the participation of school support workers who want increases in pay and staff.

“It’s a shame that for the second year in a row we have to come up here and say, ‘Our schools are starving,’ ” Jewell said.

It is unfortunate that that message must be delivered twice, but it’s encouraging that so many care to say it again. Lawmakers may choose not to hear it, but parents and other voters will.