A sea of red-clad marchers worked their way to the General Assembly on Tuesday to advocate for higher teacher pay and at the “Red for Ed” march in Raleigh.
The crowd of thousands flowed into Bicentennial Plaza from the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) headquarters on Salisbury Street to the sound of brass instruments, chants of “We are democracy,” “We have the power” and “Red for Ed” as they came to the legislature to lobby elected leaders for more funding, for themselves and their classrooms.
More than 30 school districts closed for the day due to the sheer number of teachers asking off leaving the school unable to fill their classes with substitute teachers, likely swelling the number of teachers participating in the advocacy day that many are calling a de facto strike.
In North Carolina it is illegal for public employees to strike, which is defined under North Carolina law as, “a cessation or deliberate slowing down of work by a combination of persons as a means of enforcing compliance with a demand upon the employer.”
Under state law no public employees of the state, which includes local employees of counties and cities to include school districts, are allowed to strike, and to violate that is a Class I misdemeanor.
State law says, “Strikes by public employees are hereby declared illegal and against the public policy of this State. No person holding a position either full-or part-time by appointment or employment with the State of North Carolina or in any county, city, town or other political subdivision of the State of North Carolina, or in any agency of any of them, shall willfully participate in a strike by public employees.”
School systems are closing for the day so whether or not, under the law, the advocacy day is a strike is ambiguous.
What was not ambiguous was that a large portion of the state’s teachers were mobilized under the banner of the NCAE Day of Advocacy for the “Red for Ed” movement that has been pushed in other states to march on the legislature demanding higher pay and increased funding for classrooms.
Amanda Vonthron, a math teacher from Butler High School in Charlotte, drove up for the march with a fellow teacher from Butler High to participate in the march and rally.
“We’re here to ask the legislators to consider a number of things, pay raises and cost of living raises, because we haven’t had those in many years,” she said. “Our health insurance premiums are out of control, so to get those more in control.”
When asked about the recent teacher raises under the last four state budgets, Vonthron said that the raises were not enough to cover the increased cost of living.
“We’ve had some very small pay raises over the last couple of years, but the cost of living has gone up significantly over the years and it has never been enough to help that,” she said.
Since 2014 average teacher pay has increased 19.1 percent and has increased 9.5 percent since 2017.
Vonthron also wants better teacher input when it comes to designing state curriculum and better programs to prepare students who are not bound for four-year universities for their future, including more technical math programs.
“We have no path for kids that are not going to go to college, not every kid is going to go to college and people need to start accepting that,” she said. “Community colleges and trade schools are wonderful and we need to be more supportive of kids doing that and we need to have a curriculum set up for that.”
A contingent of teachers came from Troutman Middle School to lobby for better funding and higher pay saying that they have second, and sometimes third jobs, to make ends meet.
“There a lot of times I want to do certain things with my classes but I don’t have time to prepare them because I am working these two other jobs and there are many times I go into class knowing that I’m not as prepared as I want to be because I had to spend the weekend working and the kids suffer,” Bruce Roberts, a math and social studies teacher at Troutman Middle School, said.
“This was a difficult decision for me,” he said. “Our district was one that closed because of the number of teachers that asked off and when it first came about it wasn’t an easy decision for me to make that request to ask for the day off. They need to hear us, that we need help, we’re not thugs and we are not trying to shut down education, we need help. We need them to understand that we can’t just keep going along and I think the mentality of legislators in this state in particular has been that teachers are okay and its not a big deal.”
Roberts said that it’s not just about higher pay but for better supplies and funding for the schools but he sympathizes with the parents and students who had to adjust their schedules to accommodate to school closing for the march.
“I do understand the frustration of parents who had to take the day off and kids who aren’t coming to school today, but I just felt like being a part of this would be lending my voice in a small way to a bigger cause,” he said. “And hopefully they’ll hear not that we are trying to take over, not that we are trying to destroy anything but just that we need their help.”
Roberts’ statements seem to go against the rhetoric of the NCAE in a letter released ahead of the rally listing demands for the legislature including higher pay and blaming sexism for the current wages teachers are paid.
NCAE also went on to say that it is a union and calling the rally union activity and that with teachers, students, and advocates as a voting block NCAE could control all levels of government in the state, but Roberts said that NCAE doesn’t speak for him, that only he can do that for himself.
“I can only speak for myself and for the reason that I am here is that I am struggling in my classroom,” he said. “I am struggling with the materials that I would like to have that I don’t have. The time that I would like to spend that I’m not able to spend because of the situation of having to work extra jobs. That’s why I’m here.”
“If that’s how you’re going to treat us then maybe its time for some of these people to go, If you’re going to continue to make these poor choices then yeah maybe its time to go,” McKay said. “It sucks to be called a thug and, you know trying to start these things, and we can’t use these words like union and strike and all this stuff, well why not? Are they so afraid that’s going to happen? Well? Have things gotten that bad? Obviously, obviously because it takes a lot to get a state where it’s illegal for teachers to strike to do something like this, you know, I mean this isn’t a strike, this is a stand off, it’s time for somebody to start paying attention.”
McKay said that he wants to see better funding for classrooms and higher teacher pay to attract more people to the profession and make it a competitive job market to ensure the best teachers stick around and that teachers who shouldn’t be in the job don’t stay there.
“We’ve all had those teachers that should have been gone 10 years ago but they are still there, but you know what those teachers wouldn’t be in those position if the funding was there because people would be competing for those jobs, we wouldn’t be hurting for teachers, he said. “But there has been a 30 percent drop in enrollment for no reason and that’s sad. When did teachers become less of a profession than a doctor or a lawyer, we go to school just as long as they do. And we have to do continuing education. So I’m not responsible for your life or whether or not getting put behind bars, but maybe I can educate you enough to make healthy choices so you’re not going to see a doctor or educate you enough to make good choices so you don’t need a lawyer. What do you say we start at the bottom and work our way up?”
McKay also said that he thinks that maybe the federal government should step in and be involved in education spending in the schools and that the state shouldn’t be putting so much money into corporate welfare to attract jobs here.
“I just feel like our hands are tied and there is a lot of money going around for things that are not as important as education,” McKay said. “I feel like you look at something like these Congressional parties and conventional parties or something like that and its $200 a plate or we’re spending $130,000 for someone to take a limousine here and there. The ways that the money is being spent I don’t necessarily think is the best route, or the best way. Corporate tax breaks, the bill that’s on the table right now. A tax break means that you have sufficient funding and now you are giving a break to help out, well when you don’t have enough funding, well you are giving out breaks to people before you make sure everybody has what they need. You’re asking for a disaster when you have a whole entire generation of kids that are uneducated.
“You see these all across the country, its not just here, it’s a nationwide issue, I mean why are we spending on things that are, I don’t know. We are spending more on our military budget than we are on anything. Is that a country of peace? I know education is a state issue but we make changes for a lot of things an adapt to changing times. Maybe it’s time for the federal government to step in. Maybe it is time to allocate more funding or appropriate more funding to education. Because look at countries that are uncivilized, what happens, you end up with militias and gangs and cartels and complete unraveling of society and that’s not what we want.”