Earlier this week, veteran News and Observer political reporter Colin Campbell published an opinion piece entitled “Partisanship made teacher rally less effective” in which he chastised public education advocates for their approach to last week’s Day of Action in Raleigh. The article has since been republished by a variety of outlets around the state.
In the piece, Campbell deemed the rally ‘a huge missed opportunity’ because, in his view, few educators took the initiative to speak with legislators who were ready and willing to listen to our concerns. He accused the North Carolina Association of Educators–which organized the event–of ‘petty partisanship’ and suggested that educators consider building bridges ‘on both sides of the political aisle’ if they want their policy agenda to have any shot at becoming a reality.
Campbell generally does solid work reporting on the goings on at the state legislature, but his account of the events of May 1 and thoughts on North Carolina’s education advocacy landscape in general are condescending and riddled with inaccuracies.
Here are a few things Campbell should have considered:
On May 16, 2018, many educators spent more than three hours waiting in line to get through security and into the legislative building to meet with legislators. As someone who complains about having to wait in that line, I know Campbell can understand the frustration of valuable time being wasted in this manner. This year, our plan was to march to Halifax Mall, then assemble by counties so that lawmakers could easily and efficiently meet with their constituents for dialogue about our five demands. All members of the General Assembly were invited to do so, and some of them took the opportunity to come out and speak with their visitors.
Many May 1 participants did opt to go into the legislative building and meet with the legislators who remained inside. I was fortunate to be able to sit down with some colleagues and have a productive conversation about teacher recruitment and retention with Republican Senator Dan Bishop, and I witnessed a lot of other educators having formal sit-down meetings with lawmakers or catching them for a quick word at their office doors.
Campbell’s article specifically mentioned how few teachers tried to meet with Senator Phil Berger as evidence of a shortsighted strategy and a lack of understanding about who calls the shots in North Carolina. Let’s be clear. Nobody is confused about who is most responsible for the catastrophic education policy changes of the last eight years. However, in the weeks leading up to May 1, Berger kept up a steady stream of social media posts and press releases labeling the event as a ‘far left strike’ and consistently framing it as a ploy to earn votes for the Democratic Party. He questioned the integrity of educators calling for more psychologists and counselors to support the mental health of their students. His supporters took the divisive rhetoric even further, using the senator’s posts as springboards to attack teachers by referring to May 1 participants as Communists and calling for us to be fired for abandoning our students. It’s safe to say that few educators were imagining a welcome mat in front of Berger’s office on May 1.
Campbell also neglected to mention that House Speaker Tim Moore scheduled an all-day meeting of the House Appropriations Committee for May 1. The Speaker announced the meeting to committee members on the evening of April 29. As this committee includes 88 of the 120 members of the North Carolina House, Moore’s move greatly reduced the opportunities educators had to meet with their Representatives. You can infer for yourself whether that was the intended outcome.
The idea that the thousands of teachers who descended on Raleigh last week were all simply participating in a gigantic political stunt on behalf of NCAE or the Democratic Party is insulting on many levels. But the most demeaning thing about this view is that it assumes educators are not capable of following specific policy issues, watching how their elected officials represent them, and holding them accountable for their decisions when they do not act in the best interest of our public school students.
It’s also incredibly misinformed.
Many of the advocates who attended the event are not members of NCAE, and there are quite a few among us who consider themselves lifelong conservatives. Mecklenburg County educator Bishay Elshoukarey is a Republican who has gone to Raleigh the past two years to press lawmakers for change. He says, “I marched on May 1st because quality public education is not left or right, it’s a pillar of every civilized nation.” Heather Blount, who teaches in Robeson County, has participated both years as well. Heather has never voted Democrat in her life but believes she needs to stand up for public education because the actions of our legislators make it clear that they “do not have a clue” about what is going on in our schools.
I don’t pretend to speak for all of my colleagues, but I believe many educators view a quality public education as a basic human right. As such, working to improve the education we’re providing North Carolina’s children, particularly in the face of the many harmful policy changes that have been enacted over the past few years, feels like a moral imperative. It’s much deeper and more personal to us than politics.
In the end, a lot of the misinformation plaguing Campbell’s views on May 1 appears to come back to a basic lack of due diligence. In fact, the only sources he cites in his piece are Senate Republicans and a spokesman for Senator Berger. (I did contact him to ask whether he had spoken directly with any educators about the rally and he didn’t respond.)
If your research for an opinion piece on teacher advocacy consists of asking Senate Republicans ‘What did you think about the teacher rally?’ it’s no surprise that the end result sounds a lot like it was written by Phil Berger. Had Campbell taken the time to talk to some of the public school supporters who were in Raleigh last week, he could have gained some valuable insight into the important work we’re engaged in. I’d call that a huge missed opportunity.