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NC teachers and their supporters rally in Charlotte

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Calling for lawmakers to “Get Your Facts Straight,” about 40 teachers, parents and advocates rallied against education budget cuts at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on Monday.

“My students are not numbers. They are precious human beings who deserve better from the adults in charge,” said Brenda Cofield, a special education teacher at West Charlotte High.

A battle of numbers has been raging since the Republican-dominated legislature passed a budget in July. Legislative leaders say the $360 million education budget is a 5 percent increase over the past year.

“This year, Republican lawmakers voted to spend the most money on K-12 public education in state history,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger wrote in an opinion piece in Sunday’s Observer, which was quoted dismissively at the rally.

That jump, critics note, is driven by increases in enrollment and the cost of health care and retirement benefits. It also includes more money for charter schools, which are independent public schools that don’t report to school boards, and future spending for vouchers to help low-income families pay private-school tuition.

Speakers at the rally, which was sponsored by the N.C. Association of Educators, Progress NC and Public Schools First NC, highlighted cuts in spending for teachers, assistants, instructional supplies and textbooks, as well as decisions to phase out tenure and extra pay for advanced degrees.

Charles Smith, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory have “declared war on public education and public educators in North Carolina.” He referred to the decision to eliminate teacher tenure, which is known as career status, and offered a warning to legislators.

“Let me remind you: You don’t have career status either,” Smith said. “Teachers vote. They don’t forget.”

Dueling data

The clash over education highlights the way numbers and labels can be spun.

Berger’s column said the image of drastic education cuts comes from “dishonest but powerful special interests” who are “focusing on one thing: money for their union members.”

The NCAE and CMAE are affiliates of the National Education Association, a teachers union. But North Carolina doesn’t allow collective bargaining, and local members say they’re not a true union.

Berger wrote about providing teachers “a package of salary and benefits worth an average of $55,264 for 10 months of employment.” Budget critics frustrated by the lack of raises for teachers and other state employees cite an NEA study that ranks North Carolina 46th on teacher pay at an average of $45,947, a number that doesn’t include benefits.

The budget calls for school districts to offer four-year contracts that include $500-a-year raises to 25 percent of teachers, starting in 2014. Critics have called that raise laughably small. Berger’s column describes it as earning an additional $5,000 over the course of the four years. He gets that number from the cumulative effect of getting a $500 raise each year, from $500 additional earned the first year to $2,000 the fourth year.

Personal lessons

Many remarks at the rally went beyond the numbers. Vivian Connell, a former CMS teacher and public school parent, called the budget “a threat to the moral fabric and economic prospects” of North Carolina.

Justin Ashley, a McAlpine Elementary fourth-grade teacher, was invited to speak after his personal letter to House Speaker Thom Tillis went viral last week. He talked about a ninth-grade teacher who encouraged him when he was dealing with family turmoil, and a high school counselor who helped him get a full scholarship to become a teacher through the N.C. Teaching Fellows program, which was abolished in the current budget.

Ashley, who was recently named N.C. history teacher of the year, talked about North Carolinians’ record of standing up for their rights, from the Revolutionary War to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“We are here today with that same stubbornness of our forefathers, that same doggedness,” he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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