More than 1,000 teachers from around the state took to the streets of Raleigh today. They were in town for the North Carolina Association of Educators annual conference. They are protesting, in part, against possible budget cuts in the General Assembly that could lead to tens of thousands of teachers and school personnel being laid off. The Legislature is trying to plug a $2.5 billion dollar budget gap.
Like the students in the classes they all teach, some of the teachers got a bit of a slow start at this morning’s NCAE Convention. Normally a fairly mundane affair, the convention has taken on a new urgency - as expressed by president Sheri Strickland:
"Because today, in addition to the continued economic crisis, we are also dealing with an all-out assault on our profession and our schools."
That may sound a little hyperbolic, but cable-show pundits are turning their talons on public school teachers:
"Teachers just don’t get paid as much as people on Wall Street do. Nor, with all due respect to teachers, do they work as much, they have summers off."
The NCAE represents about 60,000 current and retired teachers and educators. They are not a union and have no collective bargaining rights in North Carolina. And their membership is less than half of the 140,000 or so public school teachers in the state.
Tens of thousands of those jobs may be in jeopardy, and layoffs are almost certain for some support personnel and teacher assistants. That has some educators more than a little angry…
"We’re taxpayers too. And I tell you, madame president and vice president, don’t say education without the word public in front of it! I am Sandra Hatley and I teach in Morgantown, Burke County, North Carolina. Never before have such deep cuts been proposed. Never before have we had to deal with people who have such anti-public education… being in control."
Hatley has been an elementary school special education teacher for 42 years. After firing up her colleagues during the morning meeting, she led them outside to the streets.
More than a thousand teachers marched, holding signs that said, among other things: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” The march ended after just one city block, but the enthusiasm didn’t die down when they returned to the Convention Center.
Donavan Harbison is in the crowd. He’s not wearing a red t-shirt with the motto “Unite, Organize, Empower” on the front, like hundreds of others. He’s a junior at NC Central, and just wants to teach math when he graduates. He says older teachers say the job is not the same:
"They always make a joke ‘stay away, stay away.” I think what they really want us to do is really reconsider this job, because this job isn’t some fly by night thing, if you want to be in it, you have to be in it for the long haul."
Many teachers may find that long haul over before they are ready for it to be. And the NCAE is, right now, the main way they are fighting back. The teachers group has long been one of the more powerful voting blocks in the state. The NCAE has traditionally endorsed democratic candidates, and some see the republican leadership’s potential education cuts as punishing political foes.
Tripp Jeffers is an NCAE member and captured the political emotion of the event:
"We care not whether one has a “D” or an “I” or an “R” or a “T” beside their name, because whether they are democrats, independents, republicans, or tea party, it all spells dirt if they don’t support public education."
The NCAE convention ends tomorrow and the teachers will return to their homes in Morgantown and Halifax County and everywhere else. The legislators, meanwhile, will continue to argue over a budget that could result in a very different NCAE – and a very different school system – next year.