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.