by Valerie Strauss
They aren’t over.
The unprecedented stretch of strikes and protests by teachers across the country that started last year is continuing.
In February 2018, West Virginia teachers began the “Red for Ed” movement, in which teachers in mostly Republican-led states — including Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and Kentucky — went on strike.
This year, West Virginia teachers went out again, and there have been strikes in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland. Only the one in Denver was directly about pay, with the others addressing broader issues confronting public schools, such as the spread of charter schools.
Last month, teachers in some Kentucky districts called in sick for a day to protest an issue involving pensions.
In Sacramento, teachers demanding smaller class sizes, pay raises and other things are planning a one-day strike Thursday. And North Carolina’s teachers are planning a one-day job action May 1.
A March 2019 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the 2018 teacher protests helped lead to boosts in education funding in four states — West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and North Carolina — but not enough to make up for earlier cuts.
In North Carolina, teachers say they are hoping to build on successes from a walkout they staged last May, when more than 1 million students in the state were forced to stay home because so many schools had to close. This post talks about some of the successes and why teachers are walking off the job again.
It was written by Justin Parmenter, who teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte and who has helped in organizing the protest. He was a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher of the year in 2016, and you can find him on Twitter here.
By Justin Parmenter
Energized by the boldness of our colleagues in West Virginia and Arizona and other states, thousands of North Carolina educators marched through the streets of Raleigh to the state legislature last May to let lawmakers know that we’d had enough of their indefensible lack of support for public education.
The outpouring of teacher outrage — which forced the closure of many schools, giving most students the day off — was the culmination of nearly a decade of GOP supermajority control of both chambers of North Carolina’s General Assembly, which saw a constant onslaught of legislation damaging to public schools, including:
- Deep budget cuts.
- The state’s cap on charter schools lifted.
- Millions of dollars poured into vouchers — and more into tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals — which used public dollars for private and religious school tuition and deprived public schools of needed revenue.
- Elimination of teachers’ career protections, graduate degree pay and retiree health benefits.
After years of this, we flooded the legislative building with a sea of red, filling the galleys of both the Senate and House chambers and chanting, “Remember, remember, we vote in November!” We were so loud that the speaker of the House had to momentarily halt business because nobody on the floor could hear what he was saying.
Then educators worked hard to keep education at the forefront of last November’s general election, and through our advocacy, dozens of pro-public-education candidates were elected across the state. We helped break the eight-year Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, a body that was responsible for much of the education policy we marched against. We demonstrated our collective power and won big for our schools and for our children.
But we’re not done yet.
Earlier this year, we surveyed thousands of educators and public school supporters to find out what they saw as the biggest obstacles facing public education in North Carolina. At the convention of the North Carolina Association of Educators last month, delegates were polled to determine, of the challenges identified, which were the five most pressing. Our delegates then voted overwhelmingly to hold a Day of Action on Wednesday, May 1. On that day we will descend on Raleigh again to send a clear message to lawmakers about what our public schools need from them.
These are our five demands:
1. Provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses and other health professionals to meet national standards
Youth suicide in North Carolina has doubled over the past decade (PDF), and many of our students do not have access to mental health care. Our schools are in a position to help, yet staffing ratios for student support services in the state remain far below recommended levels (for example, the suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. Statewide, our ratio is 1:2083).
2. Provide a $15 minimum wage for all school personnel; a 5 percent raise for all ESPs (noncertified staff), teachers and administrators; and a 5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for retirees
The past few years have seen some progress on educator salaries, but North Carolina remains far behind the national average and ranks 49th in wage competitiveness (PDF). Our veteran teachers and noncertified employees such as custodians and teacher assistants have been largely left out in the cold on recent raises, as have retirees. It’s way past time for a significant commitment to all school employees.
3. Expand Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families
Good health forms the foundation of success in the classroom, yet lots of children do not have access to quality health care. Research shows that expanding Medicaid for their parents results in a “welcome mat effect” with increased enrollment of children. Closing the health coverage gap in North Carolina would remove an important barrier to learning for many of our most needy students.
4. Reinstate state retiree health benefits eliminated by the General Assembly in 2017
State lawmakers eliminated retiree health benefits in the 2017 budget. All state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2021, will be forced to purchase their own health insurance when they retire. This change cripples recruitment and retention of educators at a time when our teacher pipeline is already in crisis, and it must be reversed.
5. Restore advanced degree compensation stripped by the General Assembly in 2013
The revocation of master’s pay has led, unsurprisingly, to a sizable decline in those seeking graduate degrees in education at University of North Carolina schools. Recent research from North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found a positive impact on student attendance, achievement and evaluation results for teachers who hold a master’s degree in their subject area.
North Carolina’s state legislators are in long session this year and will soon be crafting the 2019-21 budget. Supporters of public education are in an excellent position to help shape the priorities reflected in that budget, provided we can bring sufficient pressure. To do that we hope to get a massive turnout on May 1.
What we saw last May is that we are powerful when we rise together. This year we’re more focused. This year we’re more organized. And this year we can be even more powerful.
This article was published by the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog on April 10.