Teachers rally outside the state capitol in Phoenix on Friday, April 27, 2018, their second day of walkouts. Teachers in Arizona and Colorado have walked out of their classes over low salaries, the latest in a series of strikes across the nation over low teacher pay. (Matt York/Associated Press)

Teachers in states including West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and now Arizona have recently or are now striking for better pay and more education funding. This post is about why North Carolina teachers may be next.

With most of Arizona schools shut on Tuesday as teachers strike for the fourth day, the “Red for Ed” movement in Republican-led states has surprised the education world and challenged lawmakers. Traditionally action-shy educators have also walked out in Colorado, with a Democratic governor, and in the District of Columbia, and it’s not just about low pay that requires many of them to work two or three jobs to pay the bills. A recent report from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found:

Most states cut school funding after the [2008] recession hit, and it took years for states to restore their funding to pre-recession levels. In 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive spending data are available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008.

So what state is next? North Carolina could be the place. In this post, teacher Justin Parmenter explains what teachers in that state have been dealing with for years and why many are carefully watching colleagues who have gone on strike in other states.

Parmenter teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. An educator for more than 20 years, he started his teaching career “believing that I was going to transform every child,” just as many first-year teachers do when they are placed in schools with high-needs populations. He says he quickly learned how complex teaching actually is. Parmenter has written a number of posts for this blog about teaching and the effects that data-driven school reform have had on his profession and on students.

Parmenter is a fellow with Hope Street Group’s North Carolina Teacher Voice Network. He started his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania and taught in Istanbul. He was a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year in 2016, and you can find him on Twitter here.

By Justin Parmenter

For the past two months, the education version of the Arab Spring has swept across the United States. In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona, teachers who had previously seemed resigned to their fate have suddenly stood up, linked arms and demanded their legislators increase support for public education. Now North Carolina’s educators are preparing to follow our colleagues’ lead.

What many of the states seeing widespread teacher protests have in common is that they are “right to work” states, where teachers don’t have the job protection provided by unions in the event of a strike. Another similarity they share is GOP-dominated legislatures, which, despite major economic improvement over the past several years, have neglected fully funding public education to focus on lowering taxes for the wealthy.

Consider Arizona, the state I left 15 years ago in search of better teaching conditions. Arizona lags near the bottom of the barrel in teacher pay and per-pupil expenditure, and its GOP-controlled legislature has repeatedly slashed corporate taxes to the point of creating a $100 million budget shortfall.

On April 26, thousands of Arizona teachers walked off the job to call for significant change, forcing the closure of more than a thousand schools. Fifty thousand educators marched on the state capitol, demanding salary increases, restoration of education funding to pre-recession levels, and a commitment to no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

The better teaching conditions I found in North Carolina in 2002 are now long gone. Since taking over state government in 2010, Republican lawmakers in our state have ushered in a jaw-dropping decline in the quality of teacher working conditions and student learning conditions.

Consider the facts of the last several years:

  • North Carolina teachers earn 5 percent less, on average, than they did before the recession when numbers are adjusted for inflation.
  • Our state today spends 12.2 percent less per pupil than it did before the recession, ranking 39th in the nation.
  • Staffing ratios for school counselors, psychologists, and social workers are far below what industry recommends, leaving our students without the social and emotional support they desperately need.
  • Teachers have lost due process rights, longevity pay and pay increases for graduate degrees. New hires after January 1, 2021, will not enjoy retiree health benefits.
  • Legislators removed the cap on charter schools, 173 of which are currently adding substantial fiscal pressure to cash-starved districts.
  • We’ve lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants because of state budget cuts, crippling teachers’ abilities to differentiate instruction and manage behavior.
  • Health insurance premiums have skyrocketed. Teachers responsible for insuring their families now pay an average of nearly $10,000 a year
  • The General Assembly implemented a new principal performance pay system, which will result in some school leaders suffering pay reductions of more than $20,000, leading to early retirements.
  • Despite some progress, a bungled class size reduction leaves schools with unfunded capital needs and almost 7,000 new teaching positions that will be difficult to fill, especially considering the hostile landscape detailed above.

Under the same leadership that has presided over this shameful decline, cuts to corporate and income tax rates have cost North Carolina $3.5 billion in annual revenue. This already staggering number will increase to $4.4 billion when additional rate reductions go into effect in 2019. While education needs become more urgent at every level, the North Carolina General Assembly’s misguided priorities have made it impossible for our state to invest adequately in our own children’s futures. And it’s time for that to end.

The teachers and students of North Carolina deserve to be provided with conditions that allow them to succeed. On Wednesday, May 16, thousands of educators from all over our state will greet lawmakers in Raleigh as they return to the General Assembly.

Like our colleagues across the country, we will demand that our elected officials make public education priority No. 1 in our state. It will mark the dawn of a grass-roots movement which will continue until we see significant improvement in the educational environment in our state.