Cary, N.C. — While Senate leaders and other Republicans are calling Monday's teacher walk-in a "PR gimmick," Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is taking a more conciliatory approach, pledging to address teachers' concerns "head on."
McCrory met Tuesday with members of his new Teacher Advisory Committee and tried to assure them he's in their corner.
The walk-in, which was designed to bring attention to low teacher pay, large class sizes and other issues, wasn't mentioned during the advisory committee's three-hour meeting.
The governor said the issues were brewing long before he got into office, and he said educators have legitimate concerns.
"This is beyond dealing with frustration, concern. It's trying to find long-term solutions to complex educational issues," he said. "This is not Republican, Democrat, independent issue. It's an issue that will determine the future of our state and the future of our jobs."
Committee members Carol Wicker, who teaches English at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, and Diana De Los Santos, who teaches math at a charter school in Durham, said McCrory's interest gives them reason to hope for improvement.
"He seemed very honed in. He's got a great staff in there. So, I'm excited," Wicker said.
"The climate we work in as teachers right now, it's not as effective as it could be for the students we serve. We're constrained by a lot of budgetary needs and competency needs," De Los Santos said.
The group will meet for the next year and present their recommendations to state leaders.
Still, McCrory was quick to caution the committee that might not be able to do much for teachers soon, noting that the state is still struggling with the recession.
"People are being laid off in some industries, and in other industries, it's growing," he said. "As that happens, our income to pay teachers, to pay for buildings, for professors and new computer equipment is limited."
Speaking to reporters earlier Tuesday, McCrory referred to the teacher morale problem as "a cloud that’s been hanging over the state, especially during the past five years, where many of these problems have been swept under the rug and not addressed. And I’m now the governor who needs to address them.
"These issues have not been – they didn’t just come up during the past nine months," he reiterated. "They’ve been problems that we’ve kind of ignored during the past five years. It’s time we address them – and address them head on – and get input from many of the different aspects of education that need to be listened to, including teachers."
However, several changes that have angered teachers most – eliminating tenure and extra pay for master's degrees, for example – were enacted this year. McCrory signed the legislation into law.
“We’ll agree with a large part of what the governor is saying,” said Brian Lewis, political director for the North Carolina Association of Educators. “We would add that Gov. McCrory has been ignoring these problems for nine months as well.”
Lewis says teachers are also angry about the new letter-grading system for schools and frustrated by the lack of supplies and resources in the classroom, a direct effect of the state's 48th-lowest per-pupil spending.
McCrory should have spoken up, he said, when Senate leaders moved to cut tenure and due process rights, but he did not.
"He produced an ad this time last year where he said he was going to get a gold star for his accomplishments in public education." Lewis said. "Here we are, nine months later, and he’s done absolutely nothing for public education – not even make a public statement."
Meanwhile, Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson voiced support Tuesday for the walk-in, saying it helped parents and communities understand the hard work teachers do every day.
"I agree with the governor that our teachers feel devalued," she said. "We as a state need to do something to raise teachers' salaries, to address the master's degree pay and to address the supplies and materials and resources that our teachers have."
Atkinson said she's "optimistic" that lawmakers will address those issues in the 2014 short session.
"It’s important that they do," she said. "We don’t want the teaching profession to be a revolving door, where people come to teach for one year and they leave. That’s not in the best interest of our students."