National News

Teacher Walkouts Spread to North Carolina, but the Movement Has Limits

Posted May 16, 2018 7:01 p.m. EDT

DURHAM, N.C. — The nationwide teacher protest movement spread to a sixth state on Wednesday as thousands in North Carolina rallied at the state Capitol for higher pay and more money for schools. It was the first mass walkout for teachers in the state.

In the months since the movement began, teachers have walked out in deep-red states and purple states; in states with booming economies and ones that are struggling; in states where school funding scrapes the bottom, and others where the numbers are closer to the national average.

Despite the diversity and seemingly endless energy, the movement has limits. Most states have schools that are funded more or less equally from state and local coffers, with voters making many financial decisions close to home. But North Carolina shares something with other walkout states: Its state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts.

This strong-state model can include a larger-than-typical role for state governments in funding schools, a state-mandated salary schedule for teachers or efforts to equalize funding between poor and rich school districts.

Because of such policies, the states are, in a way, ripe for large-scale labor actions, despite having weak public sector unions. Unlike some Northeast states where teachers in one town can earn $20,000 more than those in a nearby city, low-income and middle-class districts in the states that have had walkouts have similar teacher salary and school funding challenges, building solidarity — and political leverage — across hundreds of miles. In states where education financing is locally driven, teacher labor actions usually look more like the one-day strike that occurred in March in Jersey City, New Jersey. Several thousand union members, protesting rising health care costs, stayed out of work and later came to an agreement with the school board. The rest of the state was not affected.

In North Carolina, where teachers across the state wore red and filled the streets of the capital on Wednesday, the state provides 58 percent of the funding. Raleigh sets a salary floor of $35,000 for beginning teachers. Districts can use local money, collected largely from property taxes, to add to that, with supplements varying between nothing and over $8,000 a year.

Teacher salaries across the United States have failed to keep pace with inflation since 2009, falling by an average of 4 percent, according to data from the National Education Association, the national teachers’ union. The drop is steeper in the six walkout states — Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

In North Carolina, inflation-adjusted salaries are down 9 percent since 2009. Teachers earned an average of $9,000 less than the national average of $59,000 during the 2016-17 school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. North Carolina is also the top user of foreign teachers brought in via the J-1 temporary visa, a trend that has accelerated because of stagnant pay.

After Republicans took control of state government in 2013, North Carolina ended the estate tax and lowered corporate taxes as well as some personal income taxes.

The actions, plus the recession, meant schools took a hit. Since 2009, the budgets for supplies, textbooks and school technology have been slashed by about half, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan research group. And a greater share of teacher compensation has been dedicated toward pensions and health care costs. Symone Kiddoo, 27, is a school social worker in Durham. On Tuesday, she packed and distributed hundreds of donated, bagged meals to students at Southwest Elementary School and Forest View Elementary School. Kiddoo is the sole social worker for both schools, where over half of the 1,400 students come from low-income families. The food was for students to eat, when school was closed for the walkout.

Kiddoo spends her days responding to behavioral incidents, like a student overturning a table, and counseling children through crises, like the death of a parent. She makes sure students who cannot see the chalkboard get glasses, and she maintains a food pantry and a clothing closet for children in need.

She earns about $42,000 a year and works a second job as a pool attendant at the YMCA. She said she was participating in the walkout not primarily because of low pay, but for more mental health funding to hire social workers, school psychologists and counselors.

“We are scrappers,” she said, able to get a lot done with few resources. Still, she said it would be easier if social workers were assigned to one school at a time.

As in Arizona, the last state to mount a widespread walkout, traditional public schools here have been challenged by the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers.

When students leave a traditional public school, they take their per-pupil funding with them. While the traditional school no longer has to provide them with instruction, other costs remain, like the repair of a roof or a heating system.

According to a 2016 state report, North Carolina schools had about $8 billion of facilities needs.

Proponents for traditional public schools worry that in many districts, charters and vouchers are attracting students who are whiter and more affluent than the overall student population, making it easier for some voters to reject tax increases to pay for education, thinking their own children will not be affected.

“It’s my biggest concern, that we’ve become more segregated,” said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools, said she agreed that teachers should be paid more but would not be participating in the protest because of the negative rhetoric about school choice.

“I can’t get behind the rally,” Dillingham said. “As far as segregation, charter schools are open to all North Carolina students. I can’t think of anything more segregating than a child’s ZIP code and what a parent is able to pay for a house.”

Conservatives see the walkout movement as partisan, with Democratic Party-aligned groups attempting to fire up their base before November’s midterm elections. They acknowledge that teacher salaries could be higher and that more money is needed for items like textbooks, but point to the difficulty of balancing state budgets that must also pay for Medicaid and pension systems.

“The only discernible crisis for the organizers of the event is that Republicans still control the General Assembly,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative research group in Raleigh.

Jewell, the union president, has been candid about wanting to change the makeup of the legislature. The walkout, which he calls a “day of advocacy,” is “just the beginning of a long stretch that we’re calling the six-month haul” toward the ballot box.

The Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has proposed an average pay raise for teachers of 8 percent and wants to halt planned tax cuts for businesses and high-earners in order to dedicate more money to schools.

Republicans, who hold a veto-proof majority, say they can offer a 6 percent raise and smaller class sizes while maintaining tax cuts, and say additional raises should be tied to performance. During the last several years, they phased out a program that paid teachers more for earning a master’s degree and did away with most tenure protections.

In North Carolina, as in the other five walkout states, union membership is optional for teachers.

Jewell came to North Carolina from West Virginia, where he participated in a 1990 statewide walkout. This winter, when he saw rank-and-file teachers in his home state organizing on Facebook, he said he knew he wanted his own association to lead the way toward a mass labor action. “You have to get in front of the movement,” he said.

What state could be the next to have a teacher walkout? There have been scattered rumblings of protest in Nevada and Louisiana. And there are at least five additional states that meet the major conditions for a statewide action: centralized governance and funding, and below-average teacher pay and per-student spending. The states are Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and New Mexico.

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