Bickering over the state education budget opened the floodgates to a red sea in downtown Raleigh.
Teachers, school personnel, and students clad in red T-shirts took to the streets Wednesday, May 16. They clustered on the old Capitol grounds. They crowded shoulder to shoulder in a massive throng slowly pushing toward the state legislative building to press their money demands on lawmakers opening the 2018 short session.
Teachers walked out of some 40 school districts that canceled classes for about 1 million students. The Downtown Raleigh Alliance estimated 19,000 marchers in attendance.
The House and Senate quickly gaveled in and out of session at noon. Teachers jammed into the galleries and lobbies, causing a few disruptions.
The N.C. Association of Educators’ rally brought a festive atmosphere, complete with horn players belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the sidewalk outside the legislative building. Many teachers held signs with messages from the banal to the brilliant.
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I can no longer accept,” one sign read.
Katherine Koppel-Dobbs, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools special education teacher at Quail Hollow Middle School, made a two-sided sign: “I just graduated with my master’s and all I got was this sign,” and “Don’t make me use my teacher’s voice.”
“We are not happy with the way things have been going for teachers. I feel like we deserve a lot more than we get,” Koppel-Dobbs said.
Teachers pay up to $1,000 for classroom materials, she said. Textbooks are out of date. Per-pupil funding is insufficient, especially for special education and English as a Second Language teachers who need special equipment and support services. It’s difficult to improve student test scores without additional funding.
She said the teachers had a collective message for lawmakers: “We’re here to make you listen to us.”
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, picked up that theme while addressing his colleagues in chamber.
“I know that the teachers aren’t in the classrooms today, and that bothers some folks,” Blue said. But they teach by example, and students who attended the rally got a life lesson about democracy.
He urged that “those of us on the Senate floor would be willing students, and that we will act accordingly in this session … listening to these teachers as they teach us what we ought to be doing.”
Blue’s message was shattered by a trio of teachers who burst into a chant, “Education is a right, that is why we have to fight.” They were removed from the gallery. Another teacher picked up the chant and also was removed. When the gavel fell, a small number of other teachers began screaming at the senators from the balcony.
Teachers in the lobby outside legislative chambers were warned several times to quiet down. They chanted “Remember, remember, we vote in November.”
Republicans, who are the target of teacher ire, embraced the educators. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest welcomed them as he gaveled the Senate into session. Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, drew chuckles from them as he noted the mass of red, a color usually associated with Republican states.
“I’ve never seen so many Republicans in one place,” Bishop said.
In the House, which opened with a color guard and Miss North Carolina singing the national anthem, Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, dismissed concerns partisan politics drive budget decisions. The differences are policy matters, not political considerations, and attempts to politicize the process are not helpful, he said.
“I have seen Republican members talking to their constituents, so I don’t think it’s partisan. I think Democrats and Republicans are hearing from teachers,” Jackson said.
Rep. Josh Dobson, R-McDowell, a member of the House Select Committee on School Safety, said he’s optimistic lawmakers from both sides of the aisle can work collaboratively to accomplish a meaningful budget.
Dobson chairs the House Health Committee, which met after the House recessed to approve a fast-tracked House Bill 933. The measure directs the State Board of Education to grant a license to out-of-state school psychologists to practice in North Carolina if they hold a National Association of School Psychologists certification.
The bipartisan bill was approved unanimously and is scheduled to be heard in the House on Thursday. It is intended to reduce a shortage of school psychologists in North Carolina. Seventy positions are funded but unfilled.
“It’s symbolic that we can work together,” Dobson said. “There is a commitment to get our work done here and be finished with this session.”
Although no new money is required for the school psychologist reciprocity bill, Dobson said, appropriations will be needed to hire new school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists. “Hopefully we can move the needle on that in this session as well.”
Milton “Toby” Fitch Jr. was welcomed as the state’s newest senator and expressed a wish for collaboration. He replaces Angela Bryant, who resigned her Senate District 4 seat representing Halifax, Nash, Vance, Warren, and Wilson counties. Fitch served in the state House from 1984-2001, and recently retired after 16 years as a Superior Court judge.
“I wish my mother and father could be here to see this,” Fitch said.
The General Assembly is a different place than it was during his House terms, Fitch said. But he insisted “there are no Democratic issues, there are no Republicans issues. All of the issues that we talk about in this chamber will be people issues.”
Gov. Roy Cooper addressed teachers later in the afternoon. He hailed his budget as a better prescription for North Carolina.
Cooper said he knew why teachers were in Raleigh. “To fight for our students, fight for our schools, and fight for our future. And it’s personal.”
Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said financial costs are associated with the walkout.
“All but a fraction of school employees who are paid hourly wages, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers, will lose income. Likewise, parents who are unable to find child care for the day will lose income, and the businesses that employ them will be less productive,” Stoops said.
“The most serious costs are the academic ones,” Stoops said. “The loss of instructional time just days before annual statewide testing and final exams will harm struggling students the most.”
“The fact that public school advocacy groups and unions scheduled the walkout on a school day suggests that they care little about the effect of their actions on school employees, parents, and children,” Stoops said.