The one way North Carolina's teacher rally Wednesday could spark change

Kentucky teachers rally last month. Rallies in Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona and elsewhere have encouraged North Carolina teachers, who will rally in Raleigh on Wednesday.
Kentucky teachers rally last month. Rallies in Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona and elsewhere have encouraged North Carolina teachers, who will rally in Raleigh on Wednesday. AP photo

Will the 15,000 N.C. teachers gathering in Raleigh Wednesday for the largest teachers rally in state history succeed?

That depends on what they’re trying to accomplish.

If they’re trying to awaken more North Carolinians to the fact that our state’s support for public education is well below average, the march could be a smash hit. But if they’re trying to persuade Republican legislators who control the purse to do something about it, the rally is doomed before it even begins.

Eight years after Republicans took control of the N.C. legislature, North Carolina ranks 37th in teacher pay and 39th in per-pupil spending. North Carolina would have to spend 25 percent more per pupil just to be average.

While those numbers, to Republicans’ credit, have inched up in recent years, they are far below where any self-respecting state should be. If legislative leaders haven’t valued public education more than this by now, a one-day publicity stunt (even an admirable one) isn’t going to change their minds.

In fact, legislators are digging in their heels. House Speaker Tim Moore's despicable strategy is to try to put an unpopular "union" label on the (non-unionized) teachers rather than listen to their concerns.

“Let’s call this what it is, Teacher Union thugs want to control the education process!” Rep. Mark Brody, a Union County Republican, posted on Facebook.

“It seems to me this is part of a national thing that has been orchestrated by Democrats,” Moore said.

Some of the teachers involved with Wednesday’s event said they were inspired by teacher walkouts in Colorado, Arizona and other states where teachers won financial concessions. There is a key difference, though: In those states, teachers were on strike for a week or more. That ratcheted up more pressure on political leaders than a one-day rally will.

Some critics portray the teachers as leaving their students behind on Wednesday so they can greedily try to raise their own pay. That's silly. While they do deserve and want higher pay, they are far from greedy, given the sorry state of their paychecks. They also point to other circumstances hurting children that need legislators’ attention. Those include the loss of teacher assistants, large class sizes, outdated textbooks, inadequate supplies and a shortage of school nurses and counselors. All the while, legislators are diverting more public money to private schools and charter schools.

We expect teachers to jam the streets of Raleigh Wednesday and dominate the news cycle. They will then go back to their underfunded classrooms, and legislators will go back to taking half-hearted measures to boost public education, and full-hearted measures to boost private alternatives.

There is one way Wednesday’s march can be truly successful: If the public takes notice and stays engaged, thanks to teachers continuing to put the spotlight on how the state is saving a buck on the backs of school children from now until the election on Nov. 6. On that day, voters should come out in record mid-term numbers to vote for candidates who understand there is no higher priority for the state government than public education.