Why North Carolina teachers are walking out

May 10, 2018

North Carolina teachers Matt C, Carla H and Julie Smith explain why they and their fellow educators are walking out next Wednesday, and look at the lessons from the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.

THE TEACHER rebellion has spread to the Tar Heel state. Hundreds of schools across North Carolina are set to close next Wednesday as teachers use personal days to rally at the state Capitol in Raleigh.

"It's the beginning of a six-month stretch of time to hold our elected leaders accountable for prioritizing corporate tax cuts instead of our classrooms," said the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) in a press release. "The ultimate goal is to elect more pro-public education leaders in North Carolina and to have long-term, sustainable victories."

But strikes from West Virginia to Arizona have shown that when teachers organize to collectively exert their power, they don't have to rely on the promises of politicians to stop budget cuts and win funding for education that's desperately needed.

After the 2008-2009 recession, North Carolina followed many other states' neoliberal budget strategy of slashing public funding. In the years since, we saw declines in per pupil spending, teacher pay, and faculty and staff positions.

North Carolina teachers rally against poverty conditions in their schools
North Carolina teachers rally against poverty conditions in their schools

Since the recession, funding has dropped by 24 percent for school bus replacement, 38 percent for textbooks, 45 percent for school technology and 54 percent for school supplies. Class sizes are exploding as schools lose one or two teacher positions a year and over 7,000 teacher assistant positions have been cut.

Meanwhile, experienced teachers are losing incentive to stay and develop themselves since those with advanced degrees earn no additional pay.

Then there is the crumbling infrastructure of North Carolina school buildings. One of the authors taught for a year and half in a room without functioning lights. This year, he can't unlock his door, so he must enter through another classroom and then through our adjoining storage closet.

To keep the temperature down during hot months, he tapes black curtains over the windows because the air conditioner is not turned on for the first few hot weeks.

Teachers on the floors above him have multiple buckets in their rooms to collect rainwater, and the bathrooms on a few floors are missing the doors on their stalls. He's seen mold, wasps, mice and ants in classrooms.

Because the state evaluates schools and teachers primarily on standardized tests--the End of Course and North Carolina Final Exams--schools devote what few resources they have to test prep.

In high schools, students spend anywhere from five to 15 days drilling for the tests at the end of the semester--and then take exams for another full week.

TEACHERS ARE still crystalizing the many problems with education in North Carolina into a set of demands.

So far, we are asking for a per-pupil spending increase from the current level that puts us at 39th in the nation, the reinstatement of increased pay for advanced degrees to the national average and across-the-board increases for all state employees.

Other demands include a moratorium on charter schools, protecting teacher lunch time, a statewide construction bond to fix the neglected and crumbling school buildings and the state accepting the federal expansion of Medicaid funding to help the one-quarter of North Carolina students who live in poverty.

As has been the case with teachers' strikes and protests around the country, these demands represent a combination of "bread and butter" issues of teacher pay and benefits, and issues that link the conditions of teachers to the learning conditions of students.

Multiple organizing centers have emerged among North Carolina teachers, from the NCAE to the May 16 Coalition--which grew out of the remnants of the union's social justice caucus Organize 2020--to the Facebook group North Carolina Teachers United (NCTU).

NCTU formed immediately following the strike in West Virginia, and now has more than 33,000 members. It quickly began a campaign to join and build the NCAE's yearly "Rally for Respect," which is held on the opening day of the legislature in Raleigh on May 16.

The #ItsPersonal campaign urged teachers to take personal days in order to create a staffing crisis and shut down school districts.

As this article was being written, 13 counties, including the three largest districts in the state (Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford) have declared that May 16 will be a teacher work day and schools will be closed. Many schools in those districts have seen more than 50 percent of their staff logging May 16 as a personal day.

Within the Facebook group, two popular tendencies have emerged: one looks to organizing the May 16 rally to push for electoral changes to the legislature in the fall, while the other is looking to the models from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona to call for sustained action.

The victories in West Virginia and Arizona were due in large part to vibrant rank-and file organizing at each school. Teacher activists conducted school site votes, organized liaison systems reaching into practically every school and held open meetings where educators and community members alike could participate.

North Carolina teachers and union locals are still working to organize the kind of building-by-building and bottom-up organizing that it takes to have democratic discussions, build capacity for larger actions and collectively decide next steps.

Our ability to achieve this is what will determine the kind of fight we can wage. As of now, many parents and community members outside the large school districts remain unaware of potential closures next Wednesday.

AS WORD about the May 16 day of action has spread, there have been the expected criticisms of greedy teachers "abandoning children" coming from the usual suspects.

More importantly, some of the NCAE's state-level leaders are treating May 16 as a regular Advocacy Day no different from previous years, and pushing for elections in November without so much as mentioning the need to build the union's ranks.

There are exceptions to this at the district level, particularly in Guilford and Durham Counties, where the NCAE locals have been the primary factor organizing teachers. Teachers online waver between expressing support and disappointment in the union leadership, and many have taken it upon themselves to fight anti-union arguments online and in the public sphere.

But by far the greatest opposition has come from county superintendents and principals. Teachers in many counties have experienced direct intimidation, including lying about employee rights and threats against taking a personal day.

This has pushed teachers in multiple counties to organize in secret--outside of both their workplace and their union--primarily through social media connections.

Despite this opposition and the many competing ideas and organizations within their ranks, teachers' self-activity has been impressive. The number of counties that have been forced to close schools over the last week because of teachers' activism has been remarkable.

The call to action has clearly galvanized thousands of educators across the state, and shifted the terrain of the battle over public education in North Carolina.

New educator militants are independently convincing everyone in their school buildings to take a personal day and head to Raleigh, teachers assistants have chartered buses independently of union leaders and conducted their own fundraising efforts to cover costs, and counties like Mooresville that typically escape the attention of the rest of the state have forced their districts to close.

At the same time, no clear leadership of the movement has yet emerged, and the organizations are still relatively weak.

The NCAE represents around 40,000 of the 100,000 teachers in the state, and many of the most active members in prominent Facebook groups are placing their hopes on the 2018 midterms even though gerrymandering makes it likely that supporters of public education would only be able to win in a minority of districts.

WITH MOMENTUM building toward a May 16 action that will shut down schools across large sections of the state and bring together thousands of teachers at the Capitol, the question is what are the next steps to win better education across the state.

One giant demonstration won't turn the tide by itself, and politicians in both parties have shown that it's a mistake for us to use our mobilizations as mere leverage to put them in office and hope they'll do the right thing.

Around the country, the lesson from teachers' strikes is clear: when we organize ourselves and fight with the full force of withdrawing our labor to shut schools down, we can win the schools that we, our students and their families deserve.

North Carolina teachers need to embrace that lesson and see next week's day of action as a key step toward the goal of shutting down all counties indefinitely until we win our just demands.

We need to use the process of building for May 16 to create rank-and-file organization and committees in as many schools as possible, so that we have spaces to discuss and debate our demands and the next steps to fight for them.

As the national spotlight turns next week to the Southeast for the next battle in the struggle for public education, educators will be striving to answer these questions in their school buildings and in their districts before heading to Raleigh on May 16.

Brian Bean and Alex Macmillan contributed to this article.

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