On Wednesday, educators will greet legislators returning for the short session with a massive rally. Organizers say the protest might exceed 10,000 teachers and school districts across the state are canceling classes. North Carolina teachers are following in the footsteps of their colleagues in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Republicans and some columnists warn that teachers might face a backlash from parents who will struggle to find child care when schools are closed. They also point out that teachers have received substantial raises in recent years. This year, the GOP proposes an average 6.5% raise for teachers. They argue that teachers shouldn’t complain and that they’re faring better than they did under Democrats who froze their pay during the Great Recession.
They may be right about a political backlash. Republicans are making the rally about teacher pay and in poor counties where teachers make up a substantial part of the middle class, asking for a raise when everybody else is struggling looks a bit politically tone deaf. Some people could turn on the teachers.
But the rally is not just about teacher pay. It’s about the conditions of our public schools. Still, schools need to attract and keep good teachers. Teacher pay does lag behind the rest of the country and, despite GOP claims, recent pay increases haven’t kept up.
Under Democrats, starting in the 1990s, teachers saw their salaries rise dramatically, bringing North Carolina to the national average. According to a chart from the Department of Public Instruction, pay increases under Republicans have averaged 2.5% per year during the first six years they were in control. In the six year period before they took power, Democrats gave teachers an average 3.5% raise and that’s including the two year salary freeze during the recession. If you consider the 10 year average before the recession, Democrats gave teachers an average raise of 4.4%.
Again, it’s not just pay. Republicans cut per pupil spending dramatically. They eliminated teacher assistants and have underfunded support staff, making an already challenging job even more difficult. Teachers routinely use their own money to supplement the lacking supplies in their classrooms. PTA groups that used to provide extras now raise money for necessities.
In addition, we’re seriously lacking school nurses, psychologists and social workers. We all recognize that early intervention can prevent destructive behavior but the legislature hasn’t funded positions that could stop tragedies before they occur. The right support doesn’t just help the students who are in trouble; it helps all students by minimizing disruptions.
Personally, I’m not much of a protest or rally guy. I don’t believe they’ve had much impact on legislation despite five years of Moral Mondays. They’ve had a marginal impact on turnout by increasing activists but they’ve probably done almost as much to motivate activists on the other side, too. The rally on Wednesday will probably do more to make educators feel good than influence any policy decisions. Still, teachers know a lot more about what’s needed and lacking in classrooms than a bunch of ideological politicians.
That said, compared to Democrats, Republicans have been bad for our public schools and they’ve certainly made teaching more difficult than at almost any time in the past 20 years. They’ve reduced support staff, failed to provide adequate incentives to attract or keep teachers and left classrooms lacking in necessary supplies. Instead, they’ve entered into an ideological and political experiment of “school choice” after falsely claiming that our public schools were failing. That’s not good for our teachers, our schools or our kids.