Last week, I asked my neighbor, a first-year elementary school teacher in Durham, whether she planned to go to the protests in Raleigh on Wednesday.
Durham Public Schools—like more than thirty school districts across the state, including the Wake County Public School System, Orange County Schools, and Carrboro Chapel Hill City Schools—were closing on May 16, the first day of the General Assembly's short session. Too many teachers had requested a personal day to participate in the protests; some fifteen thousand people, at least, were expected to rally for better school funding in front of the legislature that morning.
My neighbor, however, would not be among them. This is not because she doesn't support the cause. She certainly does—and she'll be there in spirit, she told me. But, as it turns out, she has to get a summer job, and Wednesday was the only day she could find time for an interview.
If you ask the Republicans who run the General Assembly, these teachers are ungrateful for what lawmakers have done for them in recent years. One state representative, Mark Brody of Union County, posted on Facebook last week that this would be a gathering of "Teacher Union thugs [who] want to control the education process!" Senate leader Phil Berger complained on Twitter that "Teacher strikes are illegal in NC, and in some respects what we're seeing looks like a work slowdown, and looks like a fairly typical union activity, and the people of NC don't support that sort of action."
House Speaker Tim Moore's office, meanwhile, blasted out press releases highlighting recent increases in teacher pay. The total teacher-pay increase for 2017–18, one release noted, would be 11 percent, and North Carolina has the second-fastest-rising teacher pay in the U.S.
But North Carolina still badly lags much of the country. Earlier this year, Education Week ranked the state fortieth in the country in overall quality, citing insufficient funding; a decade ago, the Tar Heel State placed in the top twenty. North Carolina is thirty-ninth in school funding, according the May 16 Coalition, which is organizing Wednesday's protest, and thirty-seventh in teacher pay.
"Thousands of North Carolina teachers work second jobs and many public school workers qualify for public assistance," the coalition's website explains. "Despite an economic recovery since the crash of 2008, NC state lawmakers refuse to invest in our public schools."
Adjusted for inflation, a report from the N.C. Justice Center pointed out last year, the state's per-pupil spending was down nearly 9 percent in 2016–17 from 2008–09, when the recession took hold. In that same period, per-pupil appropriations for teacher assistants have declined 36 percent; textbooks, 38 percent; school technology, 44 percent; and supplies and materials, 55 percent. Meanwhile, big, urban counties such as Wake have raised taxes to help their school districts meet their needs and provide teachers with livable wages.
This, of course, isn't just a North Carolina issue. Similar protests have taken root in red states across the country—West Virginia to Kentucky, Arizona to Oklahoma—places where educators feel unappreciated and disrespected, where they're digging into their own pockets to buy school supplies and moonlighting to make ends meet.
As the teachers the INDY interviewed for this week's cover story will tell you, the same thing is happening here—and they're sick and tired of it. And that's what this protest is all about.We Asked These Triangle Teachers Why They’re Protesting. Their Answers May Surprise You.