NC public school teachers have little to fear and everything to gain

Teachers from across Kentucky hold up signs as they fill the state Capitol to rally for increased funding and to protest last minute changes to their state funded pension system, Monday, April 2, 2018, in Frankfort, Ky.
Teachers from across Kentucky hold up signs as they fill the state Capitol to rally for increased funding and to protest last minute changes to their state funded pension system, Monday, April 2, 2018, in Frankfort, Ky.

An unprecedented wave of public school teacher walkouts and strikes, impossible to consider even a few months ago, is overturning assumptions that teachers and other public school workers are either apolitical or fearful to act.

In February of 2018, public school educators in West Virginia kicked off what is now an undeniable movement of teacher strikes across the U.S. Starting first with a few school closings and then a few counties, teacher actions in WV quickly evolved into a nine-day public school walkout shutting down all 55 school districts across the entire state. Abysmal teacher pay was of course an issue, but WV educators stayed out on strike fighting rising healthcare costs and other issues, all the while making sure students missing school were fed and looked after. Now educators in Oklahoma and Kentucky are walking out over per pupil funding and pension plans, respectively. It appears Arizona could be up next.

By any measure of workplace dignity, NC is not very different from these red state upstarts. We have done more with less for a decade. Despite repeated pleas for full funding, we continue to languish at 43rd in the nation for per pupil spending, but continuously cut taxes for the rich, cut government spending and refuse to spend available tax surpluses on programs that directly benefit children and families, namely public schools and healthcare.

To add to this heartache, young teachers in NC have never known anything different, and many even believe our current reality is normal. While the wealthy and corporate elite recovered from the recession of 2008, public school teachers and their students did not; NC public school teachers make more than 11 percent less on average than we did 15 years ago when salaries are adjusted for inflation.

It would be a mistake to think this is solely an issue of teacher pay. Student living and learning conditions are central to the work teachers do. A government that would cut education funding while roughly a fourth of the state’s children live below the poverty level is automatically suspect. Worse still, it is well known that NC child poverty disproportionately affects students of color, with over 35 percent of Black and Latino children living in poverty. Over and over again, our NC legislature has chosen to cut taxes for those who can most afford it and cut public education funding and services for the most vulnerable.

Public schools comprise the largest sector of employees in the state, serving over 1.5 million students. There are enough of us to say, “Enough!” If our legislature can’t seem to find the political will to do the right thing and bring funding levels to at least the national average, then we should do what teachers always do: roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.

As teachers, it’s time we demand the NC General Assembly have the same level of accountability required of us every day: show us your plans. We understand if you can’t do everything at once. You’ve brought us to the bottom and it will take time to work our way up, but it’s time to make some down payments with an eye toward growth.

Take some cues from West Virginia and start with an overall 5 percent raise for all state employees. That way we don’t inadvertently leave out vital school personnel like bus drivers and custodians. From there, it would be great to put together an actual plan for increasing teacher pay. Election year bonuses don’t cut it. Set some goals. Here’s a catchy one: increase NC teacher pay to 20th in the nation by 2020.

After setting a plan for full funding of public schools, be sure to check in with regular updates. Did teachers move up in national salary rankings? Did per pupil funding move up? Why or why not? By any objective measure should you, as an elected official, be returned to office based on your public school report card?

Predictably, there will be those that argue that teachers need only to vote and let public school issues serve as an electoral referendum in the fall. While it is true public schools are a perennial issue, it is time to leverage our power now. Our goal is to get real legislative action and commitments. Currently every candidate in the 2018 NC state House and Senate races faces a challenger. Regardless of party affiliation, every one of these candidates should treat public school funding as a central issue. The time to make our voice heard is now and after the election; believing anything else is what is commonly referred to as the okey-doke.

Since West Virginia, everything we thought we knew about the organized labor landscape has shifted. Right-to-work laws, collective bargaining restrictions, and laws limiting workplace actions have not hindered public school workers in other states; in fact, their restrictions are similar to NC. This should send a clear message to NC public school employees: There are no immovable objects. Given the right conditions, context, and points of leverage, everything is fair game.

Put plainly, public school employees in NC should be looking at the growing slew of red states in various stages of teacher revolt and notice what perhaps should have always been obvious: it's hard to fire teachers for standing up for our rights; there is no one to replace us. In every one of our 115 NC school districts, teacher retention is a priority issue; no one can afford to fire teachers, certainly not teachers advocating for themselves and their students.

Recently, I asked a group of teachers to think objectively about themselves and their students; to think about what’s good, what’s difficult, and what feels impossible. With that picture in mind I asked them: is our current reality acceptable? If the answer is no, we have but one question to ask: How long will we continue to live like this? A year? Two years? A career?

West Virginia answered that very question. Their answer: nine days.

The NC General Assembly reconvenes in Raleigh on May 16, 2018. Every one of NC’s 110,000 public school employees should be there to greet them.

Todd Warren is a licensed K-12 Spanish Teacher currently serving as the president of the Guilford County Association of Educators.