Fighting Budget Cuts, North Carolina Educators Dig In For the Long Haul
By Brenda Álvarez
Schools may still be out for the summer in North Carolina, but thousands of educators in the Tar Heel State have spent much of July and August rallying in opposition to devastating cuts to public education. Teachers, education support professionals, parents, and school administrators have come out in droves in massive public protests, and many have gone to jail over it, too.
Governor Pat McCrory’s state budget guts half a billion dollars from schools, leaving fewer teachers, textbooks, supplies and school busses to support a growing student population, and—without a pay increase—a faltering education profession.
“Education cuts never heal,” said Amy Harrison, a special education teacher in Guilford County. “We may not see the immediate effects of these cuts this year or the next, but 10 to 15 years down the road when students are in college or entering the workforce that’s when we’ll see them.”
What will be immediate are the 9,000 education positions that will be purged, along with the cap on class sizes and more than 10,000 Pre-K slots and the cap on class sizes.
Protests have been organized by the NAACP every Monday since late April. Called Moral Mondays, these marches have drawn thousands of people from across the state and have given educators a platform to tell the governor and the conservative legislature that they’re destroying public education.
North Carolina has enjoyed a long history of innovative and progressive policies that served as a catalyst for great public schools. But with McCrory’s new budget, the state is kowtowing to the likes of the Koch brothers and other special interest groups that have done little to improve public education for every student—similar to what is happening in Wisconsin, Florida, and Indiana.
“We as North Carolinians voted in a governor that we thought would be moderate. His decision and legislation thus far has mirrored everything that is bad for public education,” said Chuck Hennessee, a teacher from Chapel Hill. He added that the governor has been taking counsel from the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, and Art Pope, budget director for the governor. Both are known to follow the extreme agenda of the Koch brothers.
The budget is set to eliminate textbook funding by $77.4 million, classroom supply funding by $45.7 million and limited English proficiency by $6 million. Moreover, $50 million will go toward private school vouchers, leaving too many students behind, as public schools make a commitment to all children while private schools pick the crème de la crème.
The budget also squanders away resources meant to attract and retain highly effective educators.
The Teaching Fellows Program, for example, will no longer be funded. This program was once considered a national model for recruiting teachers into the classroom. Brad Rhew, a third year science and social studies in Forsyth County, is a graduate of the program. He says it was a great way to stay in North Carolina and go into the teaching profession, primed and ready.
“You were put into some intensive trainings and workshops and given classroom experience,” he said. “I felt so prepared to go into the profession when I graduated because of the program. However, our government decided that the program wasn’t needed.”
Adding insult to injury, educators will go another year without a pay raise. The governor insists educators have seen an increase when they earned a 1 percent pay hike last year. But when you factor in inflation and rising insurance premiums, the pay increase didn’t amount to much.
In fact, North Carolina’s teaching salary has been spiraling toward the bottom for years. In 2005-2006, the state ranked 27th in the nation in teacher pay at $43,922, according to the National Education Association’s Rankings and Estimates. Last year, it dropped to 46th place at $45,947.
And the insult comes here: In January, soon after McCrory was sworn into office, he gave top cabinet officials a hefty salary increase. The governor said to the NewsObserver, “I’m trying to make it at least where they can afford to live while running multibillion-dollar departments.”
Yet, many North Carolina educators work two jobs to make ends meet. Harrison is one of them.
“We haven’t had a substantial pay raise since 2008. I work a second job. I’m going to have to look at my finances and see if I have to work more [hours] at my second job,” she said. “I understand the need to be fiscally responsible, but at the same time you can’t say, ‘Oh we’re going to be fiscally responsible with education, but not with other things.’ It needs to be fair.”
It’s reasonably safe to say, educators are smart people. And because of their smarts, they don’t like to be duped, which is what many say the governor is trying to do.
Nashonda Cooke, an elementary school teacher in Durham, said, “There’s a hidden agenda. What our governor is doing is the very beginning steps of privatizing education. He’s trying to make it difficult for us to be successful in the classroom.”
What’s next for the Tar Heel State? They’re taking it to the polls.
“It’s like a giant who doesn’t feel it has any opposition until the opposition shows up,” said Rhew. “This isn’t going away. There are going to be people protesting until the next election. Hopefully, most of the people who pushed this through will not have a nice, comfy seat in Raleigh.”