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.
- Our state today spends 12.2% less per pupil than it did prior to the recession, ranking 39th in the nation.
- 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.
- Teachers have lost due process rights (for new hires), longevity pay, and pay increases for graduate degrees. New hires after January 1, 2021 will not enjoy retiree health benefits.
- Legislators removed the cap on charter schools, 173 of which are currently adding substantial fiscal pressure to cash-starved districts.
- We’ve lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants due to state budget cuts, crippling teachers’ abilities to differentiate instruction and manage behavior.
- 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.