The legislature comes to Raleigh Wednesday for the “short session” and opening day promises to be far more exciting than most years. Lawmakers will be greeted by crowds of teachers and educators — projected to be as large as 10,000 — showing up to Rally in Raleigh in support of public education.
Teachers can also be learners. They have watched protests and walkouts in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Wisconsin and from them have learned that when they gather in significant numbers and present a unified message they can get the attention of and action from politicians. The goals for Wednesday’s rally are to advocate for higher teacher pay for veteran teachers, to seek additional funding for textbooks and school support personnel and also to show their concern over the diversion of priorities and funding from public schools in favor of private school vouchers.
North Carolina doesn’t allow either formal teacher unions or strikes, but that doesn’t prohibit what is essentially a work slowdown from teachers who collectively choose to take personal leave the same day. So many have requested leave that many school systems, especially larger ones, cancelled classes for May 16th, partly to express solidarity with teachers, but the reality is that current estimates indicate that more than one-third of all students could face empty classrooms that day, far exceeding the number of substitute teachers systems could find.
It will not surprise you that legislators and conservatives blame this on NCAE, Democrats and Gov. Cooper, adding it is unconscionable to prevent our children from receiving a day of education. Parents will be forced to either find alternative childcare or to stay home from work. Educators claim this rally would be unnecessary if our lawmakers had adequately funded teachers and public schools. Does it feel like we’ve heard this song before?
But legislative leaders are pretty good at judging wind direction and have learned from recent teacher protests in other states. Like good surfers they decided that they couldn’t stop this wave, so they should do their best to ride with it. Before the opening gavel signals the start of session next week House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger announced they have reached consensus on a $23.9 billion budget to begin July 1. And surprise, surprise, even though noticeably short on detail, they happily proclaimed that this budget would include pay raises for teachers and state employees. It is, after all, an election year.
Those promised raises are a long way from being finalized, however if crowd sizes come anywhere close to projections we suspect that the sight of all those teachers on Halifax Mall will be enough to cause die-hard penny pinchers on Jones street to get religion. It is, after all, an election year.
Make no mistake. Just as the shots fired at Concord signaled the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775, this year will be chronicled as the year teachers found their voices and leveled the playing field a little bit with lawmakers. Our hope is that they will use this new found strength and power not just to receive more pay, but to effect meaningful and measurable improvements for the more than 1.5 million students in our state.
We will be watching and learning.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.