Legislature’s short session underway

More than 10,000 teachers rallied at the state legislative building last week in Raleigh calling for more raises and more education funding. May 16, 2018 Lauren Rose, North State Journal

RALEIGH — As the North Carolina House and Senate resumed this week, many are working on key issues around education, school safety and the state budget. The business on Jones Street is quieter now following last week’s NCAE teacher rally that welcomed lawmakers back to Raleigh.

The rally last Wednesday started at the North Carolina Association of Educators headquarters, moving to occupy the legislative complex. The teachers took time away from their classrooms to make their voices heard on a number of education-related issues. Some districts anticipated so many teachers attending the rally that school was canceled for the day.

Both the House and Senate galleries, where visitors can sit and watch session, were packed with teachers in red. At one point in comments from the chamber floor, Sen. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) looked toward them and said, “We have lots of visitors, all wearing red. I’ve never seen so many Republicans in one place,” jokingly referring to the GOP’s association with the color.

As Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) spoke from the floor in support of the rally, teachers applauded. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who presides over the Senate, paused to ask them to respect Senate decorum.

Moments later some protesters began chanting, “Education is a right; that is why we have to fight,” and were escorted out. The Senate quickly adjourned, avoiding the need to “clear the gallery” — a process that in the past has led to confrontations between protesters and the sergeant-at-arms staff and police tasked with maintaining order.

“We came here today to speak up for education because our voices have been ignored for far too long,” said Cabarrus County high school teacher Jeremy Hachen, saying the 19 percent raises touted by the GOP were not cutting it. “That’s tepid support. It’s just so they can claim they did something during their elections.”

Durham County teacher Scott McFarlane added, “They are setting us up to fail while creating a separate system to take over when we do,” referring to school choice initiatives like charter schools and voucher programs.

Estimates by the National Education Association (NCAE’s parent organization and the nation’s largest teacher union) says North Carolina is 37th in teacher pay nationally and below the average in per-pupil spending for 2017.

But GOP leaders are quick to point out these numbers are changing fast and want some credit. One day prior to the protests, the GOP House and Senate leadership were prepared to refute what they see as unfair attacks on their education record. Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) held a joint press conference where they addressed some of the issues while also unveiling a website, ncteacherraise.com, that gives more sources and data.

Berger said that in addition to being unfair to the students who were forced to miss school, the rally was tinged with political motives pointing out NCAE’s close ties to the Democratic Party. While GOP leaders agree that the rankings for N.C.’s education spending are low, they argue that this was due to lower budgets provided by their Democratic predecessors.

“Last year we were the No. 1 state in America for increasing teacher pay; this year we were No. 2,” said Moore. “You can’t go in and try to deal with a mess that we inherited in 2011 in just one swoop.”

The General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division confirmed the figures on teacher raises under recent GOP leadership. After increases in five consecutive budgets, the average North Carolina teacher will receive $53,600, a total increase of 19 percent, or $8,600 on average per teacher since 2014.

While teachers from every county were represented in the protests, not all teachers agreed with the NCAE’s day of activism. One Durham County teacher, Terry McCann, wrote an op-ed for the Herald Sun describing why he was choosing to work that day. A teacher of many decades, McCann says he received “zilch” in raises in the historically Democrat-run state until McCrory and the GOP took over.

McCann told the North State Journal that he has everything he needs to teach and succeed. He questioned what kind of budgeting school districts must be doing to not be able to provide supplies or even toilet paper sometimes.

“What will really improve education is pushing for more accountability for teachers and higher expectations for students,” he said. “If you don’t ask much of students, you aren’t going to get their best.”

McCann said he’s received support from other educators and even in a personal visit from one who gave him school supplies as a “thank you.” According to McCann and others who chose to stay home Wednesday, they felt pressure to keep silent if they differed from the NCAE’s message.

The GOP majority is also focusing on message as they try to answer their education critics, including Gov. Roy Cooper and Blue. The attention of political leaders, as well as that of the thousands of teachers who showed up to the rally, show education is a priority issue and the messaging battle will continue.

Evidence is in the legislative calendar for this week, which has more press conferences scheduled than committees — mostly by Democratic members, including Sens. Jeff Jackson, Mike Woodard, Jay Chaudhuri and two from Floyd McKissick Jr. Leadership says committee work will continue and the budget should be out by June 1.