North Carolina teachers ready their megaphones to demand change in priorities

Note:  This column appeared in the Washington Post

The past two months, the education version of the Arab Spring has swept across the United States.  In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona, teachers who had previously seemed resigned to their fate have suddenly stood up, linked arms, and demanded their legislators increase support for public education.  Now North Carolina’s educators are preparing to follow our colleagues’ lead.

What many of the states seeing widespread teacher protests have in common is that they are so-called ‘right to work’ states, where teachers don’t have the job protection provided by unions in the event of a strike.  Another similarity they share is GOP-dominated legislatures which, despite major economic improvement over the past several years, have neglected fully funding public education to focus on lowering taxes for the wealthy.

Consider Arizona, the state I left fifteen years ago in search of better teaching conditions.  Arizona lags near the bottom of the barrel in teacher pay and per-pupil expenditure, and its GOP-controlled legislature has repeatedly slashed corporate taxes to the point of creating a $100 million budget shortfall.  

On April 26, thousands of Arizona teachers walked off the job to call for significant change, forcing the closure of more than a thousand schools.  50,000 educators marched on the state capitol, demanding salary increases, restoration of education funding to pre-recession levels, and a commitment to no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

The better teaching conditions I found in North Carolina in 2002 are now long gone.  Since taking over state government in 2010, Republican lawmakers in our state have ushered in a jaw-dropping decline in the quality of teacher working conditions and student learning conditions.

Consider the facts of the last several years:

  • NC teachers earn 5% less, on average, than they did before the recession when numbers are adjusted for inflation.



  • Staffing ratios for school counselors, psychologists, and social workers are far below what industry recommends, leaving our students without the social and emotional support they desperately need.





  • Health insurance premiums have skyrocketed.  Teachers responsible for insuring their families now pay an average of nearly $10,000 a year.


  • The General Assembly implemented a new principal performance pay system, which will result in some school leaders suffering pay reductions of more than $20,000, leading to early retirements.


  • Despite some progress, a bungled class size reduction leaves schools with unfunded capital needs and almost 7,000 new teaching positions that will be difficult to fill, especially considering the hostile landscape detailed above.

Under the same leadership that has presided over this shameful decline, cuts to corporate and income tax rates have cost North Carolina $3.5 billion in annual revenue.  This already staggering number will increase to $4.4 billion when additional rate reductions go into effect in 2019. While education needs become more urgent at every level, the North Carolina General Assembly’s misguided priorities have made it impossible for our state to invest adequately in our own children’s futures.  And it’s time for that to end.

The teachers and students of North Carolina deserve to be provided with conditions that allow them to succeed.  On Wednesday, May 16, thousands of educators from all over our state will greet lawmakers in Raleigh as they return to the General Assembly.  Like our colleagues across the country, we will demand that our elected officials make public education priority number one in our state. It will mark the dawn of a grassroots movement which will continue until we see significant improvement in the educational environment in our state.

Charter bill gives Matthews new permission to raise taxes


House Bill 514, a bill introduced by Rep. Bill Brawley which would give the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill authority to create independent schools within Mecklenburg County, does in fact give those towns permission to raise property taxes for the purpose of creating new charter schools.

Section 8 of the bill reads as follows:

SECTION 8. G.S. 160A-209(c) is amended by adding a new subdivision to read:
46 “(8a) Charter schools. – To provide for a charter school operated by the
47 municipality in accordance with Article 14A of Chapter 115C of the General
48 Statutes.”

Section 160A-209(c) of the General Statues lays out 34 purposes for which NC cities have the power to raise taxes.  Brawley’s bill would add reason #35.

It is technically correct that HB 514, by itself, does not automatically raise anyone’s taxes.  But to argue that point in order to get people to support the bill is disingenuous.

The truth is, if HB 514 were to pass, Matthews and Mint Hill would have to raise taxes if they want to open charters–unless they’re willing to eliminate services to free up money to do so.

North Carolina teachers prepare to make some noise


colleagues in Arizona

Wednesday, May 16, the North Carolina Association of Educators is holding an event called Advocacy Day: March for Students and Rally for Respect in Raleigh.  We’ll be marching from NCAE headquarters to the General Assembly to greet lawmakers as the short session begins.  The event is intended as a call for our legislators to increase their support of public education.

When adjusted for inflation, the average North Carolina teacher’s salary has decreased 5% since the onset of the recession in 2009-10.  Per-pupil spending has decreased 12.2% over the same period. Under the same leadership that has presided over this shameful decline, cuts to corporate and income tax rates are set to cost the state $3.5 billion annually in potential revenue.  

Other changes we’ve seen in education over the last several years:

  • Repeal of due process rights protecting teachers from unfair dismissal
  • Stripping of masters pay and longevity pay
  • Removal of retiree health benefits for anyone hired after January 1, 2021
  • Decrease in transparency and dialogue around education legislation through practice of inserting legislation into budget bill

We believe it’s time for a change in priorities.

Teachers, please consider taking personal leave (not a sick day) and showing up in Raleigh to help North Carolina’s educators send a loud and clear message to our legislators.  

For Charlotte area folks, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators is chartering buses to provide free transportation to both member and non-members.  

The deadline to sign up is April 30 and you can sign up here:

Trauma-informed practices: the case for more compassionate schools

*Note:  This article appeared in the Charlotte Observer

Imagine a student, let’s call him Jonathan, sitting in algebra class.  Jonathan is staying at his cousin’s house because his father was murdered last year and his mother’s income from Bojangles’ doesn’t cover rent.  The lumpy couch and the uncertainty about what lies ahead make it impossible to sleep more than an hour at a stretch.

Jonathan’s head begins to droop in the middle of class.  Worried about her slumping test scores and frustrated by Jonathan’s recent unresponsiveness, the teacher issues him an ultimatum:  “If you don’t sit up and pay attention, you’ll earn after school detention.” Jonathan is suddenly overcome by the unfairness of it all.  He snaps, “How about leaving me the %@& alone?” His teacher calls for security and writes a disciplinary referral. It will be Jonathan’s third suspension of the year.

The Center for Disease Control began a study in the mid 90s which continues to this day called the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.  The study’s lead investigator concluded that childhood trauma, stemming from experiences such as abuse, neglect, loss of a loved one and food insecurity, represents the nation’s #1 public health problem.  Trauma victims who do not cope with their experiences in healthy ways increase their risk of depression, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, chronic disease, mental illness, and suicide.

In our classrooms, the impact of trauma can range from distractibility to difficulty relating to others and managing emotions.  Teachers may perceive that a student just has behavior problems or is not interested in learning, when the reality is that student is simply too overwhelmed to learn.  Trauma can lead to behaviors which result in lost instructional time, reduce graduation rates and set our students on the road toward joblessness and poverty.

So what are teachers with students like Jonathan to do?  There is innovative work going on in North Carolina called the Compassionate Schools Initiative which is being led by Buncombe and Watauga Counties as well as the Public School Forum’s Resilience and Learning Project.  This movement is changing our approach to students who have experienced childhood adversity by training staff on the impact of trauma, equipping them with new strategies for helping students build resilience, and emphasizing self care for staff and students alike.  

Strategies used in Compassionate Schools include practicing unconditional positive regard, holding morning meetings, teaching students calming techniques, and providing students with choice and control when appropriate.  Trauma-informed practices also involve handling discipline in a restorative rather than punitive manner, giving students a structured opportunity to reflect on choices and offer input on fair consequences that would help them achieve their long term goals.  This approach empowers students like Jonathan and builds positive relationships between students and staff.

After several years of the Compassionate Schools Initiative in Buncombe County, schools have seen improvement in test scores and attendance as well as reductions in discipline referrals and suspensions.  The shift in culture has benefited all students, not just those who have experienced trauma.

Recently I had an opportunity to speak with a group of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers from CMS schools.   Over and over during that conversation I heard about the need to move from a reactive mode to a preventative mode and equip students with the coping skills they need to deal with adversity.  Support staff also felt that prevention needs to happen not just in their offices, but in everywhere in our schools. Trauma-informed practices and the Compassionate Schools Initiative have the potential to help us do that.  It’s time to take a meaningful step toward creating the compassionate, supportive school cultures our students need.