Politics & Government

Thousands of NC teachers marched in Raleigh in May. Did they accomplish anything?

Thousands of North Carolina teachers took to the streets of Raleigh in May for a historic political march, but they didn't get much of what they wanted from state legislators this year.

The teachers marched on a platform that included sharp increases in teacher pay and school funding, a statewide school construction bond referendum, expanding Medicaid, freezing tax cuts and reversing several education-related legislative changes.

Leaders of the march, which was organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators, say they're not surprised that their platform didn't get much traction with the Republican-led legislature. Organizers contend that their protests are nonpartisan, but they also say their goal is to elect in November "pro-education" candidates who will eliminate the GOP super-majority.

"We didn’t anticipate them meeting those goals because their record since 2011 has been one of defunding public schools and giving tax breaks to the corporation and the millionaires," said Mark Jewell, president of NCAE.

But Republican legislative leaders say they did listen to teachers by giving pay raises and more school funding, albeit less than what some education groups wanted.

"Speaker Moore and House lawmakers not only listened and met with teachers on May 16, they increased commitments for their fifth consecutive teacher pay raise to a 6.5 percent average, extending additional increases for veteran teachers, and included another $700 million in annual education spending in the state budget," said Joseph Kyzer, a spokesman for House Speaker Tim Moore.

"North Carolina has advanced 10 spots in teacher pay rankings from 47th to 37th with five consecutive raises from Republican leadership and nearly half our teachers have received a $10,000 raise, some much higher."

There's a disconnect between teachers saying the march was more than just about pay raises and how legislators responded, according to Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

"The message was we need more to support our students, but the legislators said, 'We gave you a raise,'" Poston said. '"But we don’t have enough textbooks for all our children.' "But we gave you a raise.'"

To mark the first day of this year's legislative session, a crowd of around 19,000 teachers marched in downtown Raleigh on May 16. So many teachers took the day off that 42 school districts representing more than 1 million students closed for classes.

Here's a look at some of the things that were announced as goals for the march and what action, if any, the legislature took:

Launch plan to raise per-pupil spending and teacher pay to the national average in four years and freeze corporate tax cuts until the averages are reached. Legislators gave increases to both, but not as much as what Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper proposed. Planned corporate and personal income tax cuts went through as scheduled.

End "experienced educator pay discrimination." Legislators provided $12 million for raises for teachers who have at least 25 years experience, but NCAE complains that's only $700 more per year while bigger raises are going to less-experienced teachers.

"Significant" and "livable raises" for all public school employees. The principal pay schedule is going up 6.9 percent, and school support staff are getting a 2 percent raise. But NCAE complains these support personnel, such as cafeteria workers, custodians and teacher assistants, aren't included in the legislature's plan to raise the minimum salary for all state employees to $31,200.

End pay for performance based on test scores for teachers and principals. Legislators expanded the amount of performance pay for teachers by $22 million.

Add at least 500 additional school nurses, social workers and counselors this year. Legislators provided $10 million in grants this year for additional school mental health personnel compared to the $40 million proposed by Cooper.

Expand Medicaid "to improve health options for our most vulnerable students." A Senate committee removed language from a bill supported by the House that called for studying the costs and benefits of expanding Medicaid.

Put a statewide $1.9 billion school construction bond referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to "fix our crumbling schools and large class sizes." Legislators put six constitutional amendments on the November ballot but didn't consider the school bond.

"It would have been amazing if the list of requests put out by NCAE was fully funded," said Lauren Genesky, an English teacher at Millbrook High School in Raleigh who participated in the May march. "It would be a utopia. I don’t know if the General Assembly was led by Democrats that it could be fully fulfilled."

Perceptions of the impact of this year's legislative session on the state's public schools varies.

“This year, I am proud that the Senate continued to keep our promises to the voters and implement policies that will improve education and grow our economy, and I look forward to building on those successes in our next session," Senate leader Phil Berger said in a written statement.

In contrast, Gov. Cooper has accused Republican legislators of not listening to teachers who marched on Raleigh.

"Teachers and families gave legislators a clear mandate for this session: do more for public schools," Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Cooper, said in a written statement. "But at every turn, Republican leaders have ignored the pleas of educators and instead prioritized favors for special interests, tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, and historic power-grabs designed to limit public input in state government."

It's not surprising that NCAE didn't get what it wanted considering the animosity the group has for the state's Republican legislative leadership, according to Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation.

"It’s clear that the May 16 teacher walkout did little to alter the Republican majority’s education agenda or impede the process of making it law," Stoops said. "Then again, the march organizers made it clear that the November election was their primary focus while they outlined short-term goals for the walkout."

But Genesky and Hayley Rowley, a third-grade teacher at Renaissance West STEAM Academy in Charlotte, say one of the most important things to come out of the May protest was creating a sense of unity among the state's teachers. They said that can be built on to bring change in the state's education policies.

“The fact that the teachers in this state are mobilized now is going to set us up for an incredibly successful future lobbying for our students," Rowley said. "I think we’ve got their attention now."

Jewell, president of NCAE, says the group will hold an "education summer" filled with knocking on doors and registering voters in preparation for the fall's legislative elections.

"We’re going to make sure that we have a turnout that we’ve never seen before in a mid-term election and that it’s going to be public education that drives the turnout," Jewell said. "It’s not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democratic issue. It’s a North Carolina issue."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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