Berger talks education with 'Moral Monday' protesters

Posted June 9, 2014
Updated June 11, 2014

Senate leader Phil Berger meets with "Moral Monday" protesters in the Legislative Building on June 9, 2014.

— Educators who came to the legislature to protest with the "Moral Monday" movement asked for a meeting with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger Monday night – and got one.

Berger, R-Rockingham, the top leader in the 50-member chamber, met for roughly an hour with the group of 15 teachers and parents who came to ask lawmakers to reverse course on Republican education policies. 

After Berger and members of his staff pulled couches that normally dot the second-floor hallway outside his office into a circle, Berger engaged in a wide-ranging discussion with the protesters that touched on cuts for teaching assistant positions, the new Read to Achieve requirements for third-graders and why pay raises for teachers were tied to abandoning their tenure rights. 

In the end, Berger and the protesters didn't see eye-to-eye on much, but the Senate leader did commit to trying to arrange a follow-up meeting regarding education issues. 

"I can't commit to any particular outcome," he told the group. Berger did not agree to back off his call to tie teacher raises to relinquishing tenure. 

The sometimes testy exchanges marked the first time a senior legislative leader met in public with members of the Moral Monday movement, a group of protesters who have rallied outside the legislature for the past year. 

After the meeting, the protesters canceled their plans for a sit-in at the building. They left after speaking to reporters and were not arrested.  

Bryan Proffitt, a 10-year public school veteran who helped guide much of the discussion, said teachers initially found it “incredibly discouraging” to arrive at Berger's office and find the door locked, but thanked the Senate leader for “a good conversation.”

"We’ll be back if these conditions are not met," he said. "The reality is, with all the media attention we’re getting right here and all this conversation, we’re going to be back with a whole lot more folks."

No commitments to meet demands 

Once outside the Legislative Building, Proffitt called the meeting "a win" for the Moral Monday movement, eliciting cheers from well-wishers who had waited for the protesters to emerge. 

"To my understanding, this is the first time this has happened in this kind of way in the last couple of years," he said. "So, I think it represents a win for the movement, because I think we have put enough pressure on them that they realize they have to have a real conversation with us." 

Toward the end of Monday's sit-down, Berger handed protesters a 26-page amendment to the state budget bill his chamber passed earlier this month. He said the legislative language in the document would have addressed many, if not all of the demands put forward by the Moral Monday movement and its leader, Rev. William Barber. 

"We were unable to find a sponsor," Berger said of the language.

Those changes would have cost billions and required a hike in the corporate tax rate from 6 percent to 50 percent, according to an analysis by the legislature's fiscal research staff. 

Before the end of the conversation, protesters confronted the Senate leader on a number of topics, including the Read to Achieve program he championed, which requires third-grade students to read on grade-level before moving on to the next grade. Proffitt and the other teachers assembled said the program led to too much testing and didn't address problems soon enough.

"Third grade is way too late," said Kristin Beller, a teacher at Millbrook Elementary School. By third grade, she said, students should already have a foundation in reading, but many students start their elementary education far behind where they should be.

"When they come in to kindergarten, we are working like mad to get them where they won't be forever behind," Beller said. 

Berger said it was not the legislation passed by the General Assembly that caused problems with testing, but rather its implementation by the Department of Public Instruction. He pointed to provisions in the bill he said were designed to provide teachers extra help in getting students to read. 

At times, the exchanges were sharply worded and emotion-laden. Protesters said they felt teachers were being blamed for failures in education.

"You didn't hear me blame you or any teacher," Berger said.

Multiple teachers replied, "We feel like it."

They then challenged Berger to enumerate the educational problems holding students back.

"It is, in some respects, a failure in how the educational system has been organized. It is, in some respects, the fault of a breakdown of the family," he replied, adding that there are probably some students who don't work as hard as they need too. 

That prompted push-back from protesters, who said they had not met parents who didn't want their children to succeed. 

In the end, Berger and the protesters were separated by ideology and numbers. For example, protesters cited figures that showed per-pupil funding was dropping. Berger argued that education funding had increased under Republican leadership. 

He said Republicans would not budget on some items. The GOP, he said, ran for the legislature based on a program that included no tax increases. 

"We did exactly what we said we would do," Berger said.


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  • jackaroe123 Jun 11, 2014

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    You've gone from claiming no one is answering your questions to changing your questions. Now you're asking why teachers aren't advocating for all state employees. Why is that our responsibility? Why would you expect anyone ever to advocate for people whose circumstances are beyond his or her awareness? Complete ignorance of what tenure is and why it exists doesn't stop tons of people from criticizing it, yet you want to fault teachers for being silent on issues they have no knowledge of? How does that make any sense?

    Why should all state employees be treated the same, as opposed to being treated uniquely, according to their unique situations? The idea that no one should get a raise until everyone does is essentially insuring gridlock forever. It's reminiscent to the idea that integration should wait until people were ready, not b/c it was the right thing to do right then.

  • Billy Smith Jun 10, 2014
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    Teachers are covered by the state personnel act and have right to appeal like all state employees.

  • nanab Jun 10, 2014

    I do hear your answers "teachers have it and deserve to have it so they can't just be fired for no reason" but that does not answer why you are not demanding tenure for the other state employees. I do not really have a problem with tenure for state employees but it needs to be for all or none. I also do not have a problem with teachers getting a raise, but again, all the departments need a raise or none get a raise. Teachers are not separate and apart from other state division. You are ALL state employees and should all be treated the same. That is the biggest obstacle the teachers of MM have and will always have. Until you stop with the we are different, we are separate, our job requires more, we do more, we this and we that you will always have limited support from citizens, both in the public industry and private industry.

  • Objective Scientist Jun 10, 2014

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    Good comment! Part of your comments relate to some current higher education issues. Should athletes be admitted to a university even if they are clearly not qualified academically? There are groups "out there" who only want to win and truly "don't care" if the athlete can't read above a 6th grade level. Likewise... at the high school level, there are some "out there" who believe it is very much OK to "pull strings" to permit a high school athlete to play a sport...even when the athlete has had attendance issues, behavioral issues, etc. - on top of very poor academic performance. Likewise, there are definitely parents, grandparents who will go to extraordinary lengths to insure their "kids" will get the "highest grades" and gain admission into the University of choice... even if their kid did not earn either! It can be a "gut-wrenching" winner take all world... with any notion of what is "right" morally and ethically easily tossed aside!

  • aurevoir Jun 10, 2014

    Dealing with kids is unique; in many ways, it's very similar to a doctor. That's someone's whole world you are messing with, and some parents will go to any length to ensure their child receives the highest grade regardless of their ability.

    Is a teacher who is pressured by administration to "modify" the grade of a star athlete or s/he won't qualify to play supposed to just "suck it up"when they are fired--not because of their inability to teach, but due to their unwillingness to be dishonest?

    Can't we just call it due process?

  • jackaroe123 Jun 10, 2014

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    I respect that the right thing to do is probably always going to be up for debate... unlike most of the measures this GOP-led NC GA forced through in the last year.

  • jackaroe123 Jun 10, 2014

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    We understand the question just fine. And we've answered it several times. You don't like the answers. Period.

    I am grateful for the hard work of sheriffs' deputies. It sounds like they are subject to undue termination for political reasons. They ought to organize and create a form of tenure for their profession. Whether they do or not, though, has nothing to do w/ teachers, as you've been told several times.

  • Maurice Pentico Jr. Jun 10, 2014
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    Well a clear majority of voters elected officials based on their platforms.... or against the incumbents platform. Those platforms are now being debated, and enacted according to current law. What you see as eviscerating... I see as reforming. Change is not always pleasant..... we can see that at the very top of our Federal govt. But what is the "right" thing to do is still up for debate.

  • Maurice Pentico Jr. Jun 10, 2014
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    Gee... so if one of MY customers tells my boss (they are friends) I'm doing a lousy job... my boss will simply fire me too? LOL. Welcome to the real world of work..... EVERYONE in the State of NC can be fired from their job, without reason... except those under the tenure system. So again.. why do teachers need this sort of protection? Hint: They dont.

  • nanab Jun 10, 2014

    Here's an example of why I am asking about teachers and other employees and why some are apparently not understanding the question. SHERIFF DEPUTY. A sheriff's deputy is hired to work for a county. But when a new Sheriff is elected some of those Sheriff's deputies are let go without cause. (some for support the other party, some for other unknown reasons). Some have 2 or 4 or more years of college, they put their very lives on the line every time they put on their uniforms, they are underpaid for this line of work (as are military). I could go on and on about the different professions within the government that actually have as much or more education and their jobs are actually dangerous to their very lives and not because they might be asked to change a grade.

    And before you ask or assume: I am not a deputy and I am not married to or related to a deputy. I just know a bunch and how some can and have been let go for no cause without any protections. Dont they deserve it too?