Hundreds of teachers and public education advocates traveled from Eastern North Carolina yesterday to state capital, where they joined thousands of others demanding higher teacher pay and more school resources.
School systems in Pitt, Wayne and Onslow Counties all canceled classes after hundreds of teachers requested the day off to attend the March for Students and Rally for Respect, organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest educator advocacy group.
The association is demanding state lawmakers freeze scheduled tax breaks for corporations and those earning more than $200,000 a year until legislators raise teacher salaries and per-pupil spending to the national average. The state’s average teacher salary lags $9,600 behind the national average and per-pupil spending is about $2,300 less than the national average, according to a report from the non-partisan National Education Association.
Lauren Piner has taught at South Central High School in Winterville for seven years. She’s also the president of the Pitt County Association of Educators.
“I’ve seen master’s pay taken away, longevity pay taken away from teachers. We’re the only state employees that do not get longevity pay anymore. It was folded into our veteran teachers’ supposed pay raises. They told them they were getting a raise, but they just folded their longevity pay into it,” Piner said.
In addition to teacher pay, demonstrators are demanding lawmakers increase funding for school resources, Piner said. She and her colleagues have witnessed the hardships from inadequate state funding for textbooks and other materials, Piner said.
“My textbooks have not been updated since 2006. I teach world history. So, President Bush is still president. President Obama hasn’t even come around yet,” Piner said. “Because we don’t have textbooks updated – the group of teachers that I work with to teach world history – we actually created our own course pack, similar to something you’d get in college. And we pay for about half of them to be printed on our own. Then, we’re lucky that our principal finds money to pay for the other half.”
The demonstration coincided with the General Assembly’s first day back into session. More than 10,000 people wearing red shirts crowded the streets leading up to the legislative building, where hundreds entered soon before lawmakers convened. After the House and Senate ended session, many teachers and public education advocates met with their local state representatives.
David Gould, who teaches art at Parkwood Elementary School in Jacksonville, met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow). Gould says he understood Brown’s argument that Republican state lawmakers have given teachers consecutive pay raises, but he thinks they can and should do more.
“The schools are suffering terribly – the children are. We’re losing our social workers. We only have a half-time nurse, and that’s recently,” Gould said. “America is going to be the best country again if we invest in our children.”
As part of this year’s budget, Republican state lawmakers plan to give teachers an average 6.2 percent pay raise. “There’s not many states that will do that this year,” Brown said. “We’re looking at other ways that we can help teachers, as well. And that will take place through the budget process.”
Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, says the Republican-controlled General Assembly hasn’t done enough for public education. He says state lawmakers have passed policies that harm education.
“This General Assembly eliminated master’s degree pay and advanced degree pay. This General Assembly eliminated longevity. This General Assembly created a salary schedule that begins at $35,000 and ends at $51,300. And that is shameful,” Jewell said.
Teacher salaries have remained below pre-recession levels, when adjusting for inflation, Jewell said. Last school year, the state’s average teacher salary was just below $49,970, the 39th lowest in the country. Estimates show average teacher pay climbing to just over $50,861 this school year, putting the state at 37th in the country. Jewell says these pay raises haven’t been evenly distributed.
“Many of our most experienced teachers have seen no increase since the recession, and are actually making less,” Jewell said.
Jewell says his organization, which is the state’s largest teacher advocacy group, supports Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s education budget proposal, which would give teachers an eight percent average pay raise. Cooper’s plan would freeze tax cuts for corporations and residents making more than $200,000 a year to pay for the proposed salary increases.
“He ran on public education. It’s what got him elected,” Jewell said. “We’re proud of the fact that he’s making it a priority, and that he’s urging the General Assembly to say, ‘No more corporate tax cuts.’
If state lawmakers don’t address the public education advocates’ demands, then they will take their concerns to the ballot box in November, Jewell said.
“We’re going to make sure that they know that we’re not happy with the trajectory that North Carolina public schools are headed to right now. And that November the sixth we are going to elect pro-public education policy makers in the House and the Senate.”