Hoping to send a message to the N.C. General Assembly, public school teachers and many parents donned red clothes and hoisted protest signs Monday as part of a statewide “walk-in.”
Monday’s protests and rallies, which took place around the state, were designed to give voice to frustrations about cuts in education funding and low teacher pay. The effort emerged from talk on social media about a teacher walk-out. Parents, principals, school districts and the N.C. Association of Educators rallied behind a “walk-in” as an alternative.
At Northwest School of the Arts, teachers arrived early Monday to stand for an hour along Beatties Ford Road. They held up signs featuring the image of a half-eaten apple and acknowledged supportive honks from drivers passing by. Once classes started, some teachers at the school signaled to their students that they planned to remain silent all day – giving their instructions non-verbally – to honor the underpaid work done by themselves and their fellow teachers.
“Raleigh, Pay Me By the Hour. I Dare You,” read the sign raised by Bonnie Fraker, chair of the school’s theater department, who said she worked 400 unpaid hours – or 10 weeks – last year.
“We didn’t want to walk out because we’re here to educate these kids,” Fraker said. “But we are really tired of the treatment we’re getting from Raleigh.”
Some teachers in the state did call in sick or otherwise took the day off to demonstrate outside the state Capitol building in Raleigh. State law bans strikes or work stoppages by public employees.
Protests are “the only thing we have left,” said Anca Stefan, who called in sick to her teaching job at Durham’s Lakewood Montessori Middle School. “We have called representatives. We have signed petitions. We have voted for people who said that they support education. And nothing has come of it.”
Senate Leader Phil Berger, a chief advocate of the the legislature’s education changes, said Monday the protests are wrong.
“We appreciate the overwhelming majority of our teachers whose hard work and commitment are vital to the success of our children. And we appreciate the right of North Carolinians to exercise their First Amendment rights, and welcome a productive dialogue,” said Berger, R-Rockingham. “There is a time and place for everything; our schools are not the place for politics and our children should not be the pawns.”
Berger has also blamed the activism on the NCAE.
But it’s not just the state teachers group that is promoting the idea. All 36 public schools in Iredell-Statesville participated in some way with the walk-in, said system spokeswoman Dawn Creason. All told, more than 600 people from the Iredell-Statesville community, including some elected officials, visited schools Monday.
Since this summer’s legislative session, N.C. teachers say they’ve been demoralized by a series of legislative actions. The legislature froze teacher pay, cut teacher assistants, eliminated extra pay for master’s degrees and replaced tenure with a system that provides $500-a-year raises and four-year contracts for only 25 percent of teachers.
Republicans who control the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion have countered that school reform plans they adopted in the past two years increase accountability, improve financial responsibility, and expand the ability of parents to move their children into charter or even private schools.
The purpose of Monday’s walk-in events and the proposed walk-out that sparked it remain vague. The Facebook page that first proposed a Nov. 4 walk-out calls for “more respect for teachers … specifically a fair balance between workload, expectations and compensation for our teachers.”
The walk-ins organized by teachers, administrators, parent groups and school districts also focused broadly on supporting teachers and improving conditions.
At Ranson Middle School in north Charlotte on Monday, Principal Alison Harris convened three student rallies – for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders – to support teachers and personally led them in chants of “Wear red for public ed!”
Speakers at the rally for sixth-graders made no direct reference to the legislature’s actions. But NCAE president Rodney Ellis, who was among the speakers, pointed out in an interview that North Carolina is now 46th among the 50 states in teacher pay, and “more devastating,” he said, 48th in per-pupil expenditure.
“I hope the legislature will take note that parents and members of the community do have an interest in getting together and figuring out the best way to support education,” he said.
Janis Alexander, 66, who teaches language arts to sixth-graders at Ranson, said before the rally that some teachers have to do what she used to do – work a second job to make ends meet.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Alexander, who has taught for 24 years. “We as educators also go out and get more (graduate) education for the kids. That doesn’t seem to be valued anymore – at least by the legislature.”
At Northwest School of the Arts, Barbara Wesselman, who teaches apparel and costume design, passed out slips of paper to her students Monday that said she would not be speaking aloud to them all day.
“I am silent to support teachers and try to be a small part of sending a message that what the N.C. legislation has put in place is demoralizing and wrong,” it read.
She did talk with the Observer before classes started, as she stood with a sign along with parents and other teachers.
Now 54, with 15 years of teaching experience, she said she makes less money than she did when she was 25 and working as a marketing rep for an insurance company. Her pay as a teacher is frozen, even as her bills go up.
“There’s got to be some kind of wake-up call to the community and to the state,” she said.
Erin Reed, a 17-year-old senior who is editor-in-chief of Intermission, the school’s newspaper, said she also backed the teachers’ cause.
“Teaching should be the most respected profession in the country,” she said. “And it’s not – especially in North Carolina. Teachers are handling the future – the (students) who will be going out into the world and making the changes we need.”
Staff Writer Ann Doss Helms and the Associated Press contributed.