During the past year, North Carolina’s teachers found their voice.
There was Angie Scioli, a Raleigh high school teacher who formed a group mobilizing teachers across the state.
There was NaShonda Cooke, a Wake County teacher telling her story on the cover of Time magazine in September.
There was Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte teacher writing opinion pieces that were shared more than a dozen times on the Washington Post’s education blog.
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These teachers and many others used their voices to weigh in on public policy, open a window into their classrooms and support each other in a state where teachers have often felt isolated and fearful. They spoke up on pay and respect, on dilapidated classrooms and being judged by students’ test scores.
Their most visible showing was a May 16 “March for Students and Rally for Respect,” which pulled an estimated 20,000 educators and supporters to Raleigh and closed school for more than 1 million students, as superintendents reacted to overwhelming requests for teacher leave days. Teachers also mobilized on a legislative mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes, a move they said sounded teacher-friendly but threatened to create classroom shortages and lead to elimination of music, art and gym classes.
“I do think the needle is moving on teachers being less afraid and more vocal,” said Scioli, a founder of the Red4EdNC group that made North Carolina part of a national wave of teacher protests last year.
The mass mobilizations empowered classroom educators, even in a state that lacks traditional unions, several teachers say.
“The bigger the numbers the stronger we are,” said Melissa Easley, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher who helped launch a North Carolina Teachers United Facebook group last spring that now has more than 39,000 members. “They can’t fire us all.”
Now the state is coming off a midterm election that saw the Republican supermajority broken. Newcomers who touted themselves as public education advocates were elected, results some attribute to teacher activism. In the coming weeks Red4EdNC, North Carolina Teachers United and the North Carolina Association of Educators, an affiliate of the national teachers’ union, will hold regional meetings in Raleigh, Asheville and Charlotte to prepare for the General Assembly’s 2019 session.
The question is whether teachers can build on last year’s momentum — and if so, what that will mean. The answer matters not just to 95,000 public school teachers and 1.5 million students, but to taxpayers and anyone with an interest in the cultural and economic health of North Carolina.
There are some who suspect that the national wave of activism — and North Carolina’s part in it — has already crested.
“I feel like by and large, (the momentum) has fizzled,” said Michael Hansen, director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan education think tank based in Washington, D.C. He said he expected more activism across the country when the current school year began, but “at this point, I’d probably be surprised if anything large resurfaces.”
Scioli, a teacher at Wake County’s Leesville Road High, says it will take work to keep teachers engaged for the long haul. Her group’s efforts to convene a statewide Teacher Congress to plan collective action last fall tanked after scanty turnout.
“Wearing red is a great organizing tool, but it’s not a means to an end,” Scioli said recently. “Wearing red doesn’t mean laws will magically change.”
At this point there’s no mass action planned for 2019. Scioli said the regional meetings — on Jan. 19 in Raleigh, Jan. 26 in Asheville and Feb. 2 in Charlotte — will be used to figure out next steps.
Not the first time
This isn’t the first surge of teacher activism. In the 1980s, thousands marched on the Executive Mansion when then-Gov. Jim Hunt froze teacher pay, recalls John Wilson, a former NEA executive director and NCAE president. The NCAE emerged as a political force — and Democrats like Hunt emerged as their allies — because of those earlier rounds of activism, he said.
“Over the years teachers have always had to fight to have a voice in their classroom, had to fight for salaries,” said Wilson, who taught special education students in Raleigh from 1971 to 1992.
The latest wave was a decade in the making. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, state and local budget cuts led to massive layoffs and other hits to education. Four years later, Republicans took control of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion for the first time in decades. The 2013 legislative session brought a barrage of changes that many teachers viewed as destructive, such as the elimination of pay for advanced degrees and “career status” job safeguards.
Even when spending on public education increased, salaries didn’t keep pace with inflation and millions were shifted to alternative sources, such as charter schools and private-school vouchers. Tax cuts restricted the amount available for education.
“I felt like I was getting kicked repeatedly in the ribs and was powerless to do anything about it,” recalls Parmenter, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Waddell Language Academy.
Red4EdNC emerged in 2013, bringing together educators affiliated with groups like NCAE and those not attached to any association. Founders took part in Moral Monday protests that covered an array of issues, including education.
Stuart Egan, a veteran teacher at Winston Salem-Forsyth’s West Forsyth High, was spurred to action by the early political clashes. In 2014 Egan weighed in on a heated exchange of emails between a Charlotte teacher and a state senator. Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education turned education writer, posted Egan’s letter on her blog.
“I realized people are listening,” Egan recalls. He now writes about education policy on his own blog, Caffeinated Rage. “If you’re a public school teacher, part of your calling is to stand up for public education and the students.”
In 2015 the Hope Street Group, a national nonprofit funded by the likes of the Gates Foundation, the Walmart Foundation and the Kentucky Department of Education, launched the North Carolina Teacher Voice Project. Hope Street’s mission is expanding economic opportunity, and the group is trying to improve education policy in a handful of states by ensuring that teachers help shape it.
Hope Street, which is nonpartisan and doesn’t take stands on education issues, trains teachers to understand issues and use their own stories to influence voters and policymakers, instead of bombarding policymakers with a list of talking points, says Katharine Correll, who heads the North Carolina project.
Parmenter was among the first recruits. He learned the responsibilities of different branches of government, started attending school board meetings and was encouraged to write about how policy affects him and his students. His first published piece, an op-ed on standardized testing that appeared in The Charlotte Observer in June 2016, got such positive response that he kept writing, he said.
In August 2017 the Post’s Valerie Strauss shared one of Parmenter’s pieces on her Answer Sheet blog. Parmenter, who now collects his work in a blog titled Notes from the Chalkboard, has since become a regular on Answer Sheet and has been picked up by an array of state and national media.
Critics sometimes depict teachers as adults seeking higher pay and job security, even if that comes at students’ expense. The latest wave of vocal teachers seek to cast themselves as people who are trying to create healthy, dynamic classrooms despite mandates and financial constraints. That’s one reason the May 16 event was described as a “march for students and rally for respect.”
Even when the topic is pay they seek to make the stories human. In the Sept. 24 issue of Time magazine, Cooke talked about trying to save for college, pay her bills and cover the cost of summer camp for a daughter with autism. Cooke is a special education teacher at Wake’s Carroll Magnet Middle School.
“We’re finally at a point where educators are controlling the narrative,” Cooke told the News & Observer recently. “Teachers are not just being referred to, but they are part of the conversation.”
Politics and geography
The state’s most visible teachers come from a handful of large districts, and their biggest foils are Republican policymakers. That poses the question: Is this a North Carolina teachers’ movement or an urban Democratic teachers’ movement?
Terry Stoops, a former teacher who specializes in education at the conservative John Locke Foundation, goes with the latter. He notes the NCAE’s traditional support of Democrats, and questions the wisdom of Red4EdNC joining forces with the union affiliate.
“Teachers are politically and ideologically diverse,” Stoops said. “For every teacher who craves strong-arm tactics, there are those who believe unions do more harm than good.”
And while Stoops applauds teacher engagement, he says they crossed a line when the May 16 rally, held on a school day, led to cancellation of classes for more than a million students.
Several teacher activists said they’re careful to focus on issues, not just party politics — though with Republicans in charge at the state and federal level, the GOP tends to be at the receiving end of criticism.
Bishay Elshoukarey, a CMS teacher who’s a Republican, started the Teachers United Facebook page. Easley, a colleague who’s a Democrat, joined him as an administrator soon afterward.
Easley said they decided to allow non-educators, including public officials, advocates and journalists, into the closed group to boost understanding of educator issues. And as administrators they delete partisan rants that aren’t focused on facts and issues.
“While the political climate today doesn’t make management of the group easy, the majority of members understand that moderate pro-education views are the way to go,” said Elshoukarey. “Having a bi-partisan group administration has been a wonderful example of how unity is possible.”
Whether it’s discussion on the Facebook group or participation in the Teacher Voice project, educators say it has been much harder to get people from North Carolina’s small districts to speak up.
In larger districts, teachers have found support from principals and district leaders. In CMS, for example, the school board issued a statement in February saying that “The Board will act to ensure that employees feel free to express their views without fear of retribution.”
“We’re not going to get better if we don’t listen to our teachers,” said CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox. This year Mecklenburg County commissioners approved money to boost the local supplement for teachers, something Wilcox cites as an example of teacher voices making a difference.
Not all teachers get that kind of encouragement.
Scioli, the Red4EdNC organizer, said some Wayne County teachers have told her they’re afraid to take part even by wearing red on Wednesdays. “In general, rural teachers have been a lot more afraid to speak up,” she said.
North Carolina’s education issues won’t change much in 2019. Teachers are still seeking more support staff, better facilities, more money for supplies and texts — and, yes, higher salaries. There will still be wrangling about the best balance between district schools, charter schools and vouchers, and about the best way to use data to hold schools accountable.
But the debates will play out in an altered political landscape. Republicans still hold the majority in both houses of the General Assembly, but they no longer have the numbers to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.
For teachers, the question will be what role their voices play.
Wilson, the former NEA executive, is more optimistic than Hansen, the Brookings expert who sees momentum fading.
“When the power translated into the election, which was also part of a strategy, then they knew they could make a difference,” Wilson said. “That’s just going to continue. Teachers understand now that they have to be at the table themselves.”