As last week’s massive teacher march and rally in Raleigh approached, lawmakers geared up for a crush of visitors advocating for public education. There were rope lines set up at the entrance of the Legislative Building, and many legislators put up welcoming signs in their offices offering snacks and drinks.
But while thousands of teachers and their supporters rallied outside the legislature, only a small percentage of them ventured indoors to meet the people who could address their concerns. Lawmakers from both parties were open to hearing from educators in their district, but few actually stopped by for a valuable face-to-face chat.
Senate Republicans estimated each senator in their caucus had an average of five visitors. And one of the most powerful people in state politics, Senate leader Phil Berger, had only a half-dozen or so teachers try to meet him, according to a spokesman.
That’s a huge missed opportunity. Teachers brought a lot of important concerns to Raleigh, and the most effective form of lobbying is dialogue. It’s hard to vote against more school supply funding if you’ve met a teacher from your district who has to choose between buying classroom supplies and saving up for their family vacation.
It’s unclear why the N.C. Association of Educators, which organized the event, didn’t do more to encourage direct lobbying efforts. The group also failed to counter Republicans’ criticism that the event was a partisan political rally.
Most professional associations in North Carolina try to transcend petty partisanship, inviting leaders from both parties to speak to their membership. The NCAE has instead aligned itself closely with the Democratic Party, making it a stated goal to elect more Democrats.
Last week’s rally featured speeches by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and “Moral Mondays” leader Rev. William Barber. Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore weren’t invited, and the NCAE ignored Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s request to speak about teachers’ healthcare and retirement systems.
That approach gives the GOP ammunition to dismiss the group’s policy agenda, much of which deserves bipartisan support: Higher pay for teachers with advanced degrees, a $15 minimum wage for school support staff, and more funding for school counselors, librarians, nurses and social workers.
The rally and march was still successful in many respects. The event drew a ton of media attention to the teachers’ cause as school districts across the state announced closures because so many of their faculty members took the day off. Politicians of all stripes tried to highlight how much they value teachers.
Thousands attended, filling the streets of downtown Raleigh with an impressive sea of red shirts (although the NCAE hurt its cause by sharing a photoshopped photo that made the crowd look even bigger).
The proposed House budget includes extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees, and it includes long overdue raises for veteran teachers — bringing the top of the pay scale from $52,000 to $60,500. But lawmakers also included an act of retribution: A provision requiring school districts to have adequate substitute teachers available before approving absences.
The goal is to prevent another rally next year that forces school closures, but it could also make it harder for teachers to take time off for other purposes. I have to wonder if Republicans would have had the guts to take such a step if the rallying teachers had stuck around to watch the budget committee vote on the provision.
The relationship between educators and the legislature is in dire need of repair. To fix it, the NCAE will have to build bridges on both sides of the political aisle. And legislators will need to make some effort too. They could start by taking time to visit schools in their districts and meet with teachers on their home turf.
Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.