Will wave of NC teacher ac­tivism fade or stay strong?

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY ANN DOSS HELMS AND T. KE­UNG HUI [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com [email protected]­sob­server.com

Dur­ing the past year, North Carolina’s teach­ers found their voice.

There was Angie Sci­oli, a Raleigh high school teacher who formed a group mo­bi­liz­ing teach­ers across the state.

There was NaShonda Cooke, a Wake County teacher telling her story on the cover of Time mag­a­zine in Septem­ber.

There was Justin Par­menter, a Char­lotte teacher writ­ing opin­ion pieces that were shared more than a dozen times on the Wash­ing­ton Post’s ed­u­ca­tion blog.

These teach­ers and many oth­ers used their voices to weigh in on pub­lic pol­icy, open a win­dow into their class­rooms and sup­port each other in a state where teach­ers have of­ten felt iso­lated and fear­ful. They spoke up on pay and re­spect, on di­lapi- dated class­rooms and be­ing judged by stu­dents’ test scores.

Their most vis­i­ble show­ing was a May 16 “March for Stu­dents and Rally for Re­spect,” which pulled an es­ti­mated 20,000 ed­u­ca­tors and sup­port­ers to Raleigh and closed school for more than 1 mil­lion stu­dents, as su­per­in­ten­dents re­act-

THE BIG­GER THE NUM­BERS THE STRONGER WE ARE. THEY CAN’T FIRE US ALL. CMS teacher Melissa Easley

ed to over­whelm­ing re­quests for teacher leave days. Teach­ers also mo­bi­lized on a leg­isla­tive man­date to re­duce K-3 class

sizes, a move they said sounded teacher-friendly but threat­ened to cre­ate class­room short­ages and lead to elim­i­na­tion of mu­sic, art and gym classes.

“I do think the nee­dle is mov­ing on teach­ers be­ing less afraid and more vo­cal,” said Sci­oli, a founder of the Red4EdNC group that made North Carolina part of a na­tional wave of teacher protests last year.

The mass mo­bi­liza­tions em­pow­ered class­room ed­u­ca­tors, even in a state that lacks tra­di­tional unions, sev­eral teach­ers say.

“The big­ger the num­bers the stronger we are,” said Melissa Easley, a Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg teacher who helped launch a North Carolina Teach­ers United Face­book group last spring that now has more than 39,000 mem­bers. “They can’t fire us all.”

Now the state is com­ing off a midterm elec­tion that saw the Repub­li­can su­per­ma­jor­ity bro­ken. New­com­ers who touted them­selves as pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates were elected, re­sults some at­tribute to teacher ac­tivism. In the com­ing weeks Red4EdNC, North Carolina Teach­ers United and the North Carolina As­so­ci­a­tion of Ed­u­ca­tors, an af­fil­i­ate of the na­tional teach­ers’ union, will hold re­gional meet­ings in Raleigh, Asheville and Char­lotte to pre­pare for the Gen­eral As­sem­bly’s 2019 ses­sion.

The ques­tion is whether teach­ers can build on last year’s mo­men­tum — and if so, what that will mean. The an­swer mat­ters not just to 95,000 pub­lic school teach­ers and 1.5 mil­lion stu­dents, but to tax­pay­ers and any­one with an in­ter­est in the cul­tural and eco­nomic health of North Carolina.

There are some who sus­pect that the na­tional wave of ac­tivism — and North Carolina’s part in it — has al­ready crested.

“I feel like by and large, (the mo­men­tum) has fiz­zled,” said Michael Hansen, di­rec­tor of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Brown Cen­ter on Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy, a non­par­ti­san ed­u­ca­tion think tank based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He said he ex­pected more ac­tivism across the coun­try when the cur­rent school year be­gan, but “at this point, I’d prob­a­bly be sur­prised if any­thing large resur­faces.”

Sci­oli, a teacher at Wake County’s Leesville Road High, says it will take work to keep teach­ers en­gaged for the long haul. Her group’s ef­forts to con­vene a statewide Teacher Congress to plan col­lec­tive ac­tion last fall tanked af­ter scanty turnout.

“Wear­ing red is a great or­ga­niz­ing tool, but it’s not a means to an end,” Sci­oli said re­cently. “Wear­ing red doesn’t mean laws will mag­i­cally change.”

At this point there’s no mass ac­tion planned for 2019. Sci­oli said the re­gional meet­ings — on Jan. 19 in Raleigh, Jan. 26 in Asheville and Feb. 2 in Char­lotte — will be used to fig­ure out next steps.

NOT THE FIRST TIME

This isn’t the first surge of teacher ac­tivism. In the 1980s, thou­sands marched on the Ex­ec­u­tive Man­sion when thenGov. Jim Hunt froze teacher pay, re­calls John Wil­son, a for­mer NEA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and NCAE pres­i­dent. The NCAE emerged as a po­lit­i­cal force — and Democrats like Hunt emerged as their al­lies — be­cause of those ear­lier rounds of ac­tivism, he said.

“Over the years teach­ers have al­ways had to fight to have a voice in their class­room, had to fight for salaries,” said Wil­son, who taught spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents in Raleigh from 1971 to 1992.

The lat­est wave was a decade in the mak­ing. When the Great Re­ces­sion hit in 2008, state and lo­cal bud­get cuts led to mas­sive lay­offs and other hits to ed­u­ca­tion. Four years later, Repub­li­cans took con­trol of the Gen­eral As­sem­bly and the gover­nor’s man­sion for the first time in decades. The 2013 leg­isla­tive ses­sion brought a bar­rage of changes that many teach­ers viewed as de­struc­tive, such as the elim­i­na­tion of pay for ad­vanced de­grees and “ca­reer sta­tus” job safe­guards.

Even when spend­ing on pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in­creased, salaries didn’t keep pace with in­fla­tion and mil­lions were shifted to al­ter­na­tive sources, such as char­ter schools and pri­vateschool vouch­ers. Tax cuts re­stricted the amount avail­able for ed­u­ca­tion.

“I felt like I was get­ting kicked re­peat­edly in the ribs and was pow­er­less to do any­thing about it,” re­calls Par­menter, a sev­enth-grade lan­guage arts teacher at Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg’s Wad­dell Lan­guage Acad­emy.

Red4EdNC emerged in 2013, bring­ing to­gether ed­u­ca­tors af­fil­i­ated with groups like NCAE and those not at­tached to any as­so­ci­a­tion. Founders took part in Moral Mon­day protests that cov­ered an ar­ray of is­sues, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion.

Stu­art Egan, a vet­eran teacher at Win­ston Salem-Forsyth’s West Forsyth High, was spurred to ac­tion by the early po­lit­i­cal clashes. In 2014 Egan weighed in on a heated ex­change of emails be­tween a Char­lotte teacher and a state se­na­tor. Diane Rav­itch, a for­mer U.S. as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion turned ed­u­ca­tion writer, posted Egan’s let­ter on her blog.

“I re­al­ized peo­ple are lis­ten­ing,” Egan re­calls. He now writes about ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy on his own blog, Caf­feinated Rage. “If you’re a pub­lic school teacher, part of your call­ing is to stand up for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and the stu­dents.”

BUILD­ING STEAM

In 2015 the Hope Street Group, a na­tional non­profit funded by the likes of the Gates Foun­da­tion, the Wal­mart Foun­da­tion and the Ken­tucky De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, launched the North Carolina Teacher Voice Project. Hope Street’s mis­sion is ex­pand­ing eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, and the group is try­ing to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy in a hand­ful of states by en­sur­ing that teach­ers help shape it.

Hope Street, which is non­par­ti­san and doesn’t take stands on ed­u­ca­tion is­sues, trains teach­ers to un­der­stand is­sues and use their own sto­ries to in­flu­ence vot­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers, in­stead of bom­bard­ing pol­i­cy­mak­ers with a list of talk­ing points, says Katharine Cor­rell, who heads the North Carolina project.

Par­menter was among the first re­cruits. He learned the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of dif­fer­ent branches of gov­ern­ment, started at­tend­ing school board meet­ings and was en­cour­aged to write about how pol­icy af­fects him and his stu­dents. His first pub­lished piece, an op-ed on stan­dard­ized test­ing that ap­peared in The Char­lotte Ob­server in June 2016, got such pos­i­tive re­sponse that he kept writ­ing, he said.

In Au­gust 2017 the Post’s Va­lerie Strauss shared one of Par­menter’s pieces on her An­swer Sheet blog. Par­menter, who now col­lects his work in a blog ti­tled Notes from the Chalk­board, has since be­come a reg­u­lar on An­swer Sheet and has been picked up by an ar­ray of state and na­tional me­dia.

Crit­ics some­times de­pict teach­ers as adults seek­ing higher pay and job se­cu­rity, even if that comes at stu­dents’ ex­pense. The lat­est wave of vo­cal teach­ers seek to cast them­selves as peo­ple who are try­ing to cre­ate healthy, dy­namic class­rooms de­spite man­dates and fi­nan­cial con­straints. That’s one rea­son the May 16 event was de­scribed as a “march for stu­dents and rally for re­spect.”

Even when the topic is pay they seek to make the sto­ries hu­man. In the Sept. 24 is­sue of Time mag­a­zine, Cooke talked about try­ing to save for col­lege, pay her bills and cover the cost of sum­mer camp for a daugh­ter with autism. Cooke is a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher at Wake’s Car­roll Mag­net Mid­dle School.

“We’re fi­nally at a point where ed­u­ca­tors are con­trol­ling the nar­ra­tive,” Cooke told the News & Ob­server re­cently. “Teach­ers are not just be­ing re­ferred to, but they are part of the con­ver­sa­tion.”

POL­I­TICS AND GEOG­RA­PHY

The state’s most vis­i­ble teach­ers come from a hand­ful of large dis­tricts, and their big­gest foils are Repub­li­can pol­i­cy­mak­ers. That poses the ques­tion: Is this a North Carolina teach­ers’ move­ment or an ur­ban Demo­cratic teach­ers’ move­ment?

Terry Stoops, a for­mer teacher who spe­cial­izes in ed­u­ca­tion at the con­ser­va­tive John Locke Foun­da­tion, goes with the lat­ter. He notes the NCAE’s tra­di­tional sup­port of Democrats, and ques­tions the wis­dom of Red4EdNC join­ing forces with the union af­fil­i­ate.

“Teach­ers are po­lit­i­cally and ide­o­log­i­cally di­verse,” Stoops said. “For ev­ery teacher who craves strong-arm tac­tics, there are those who believe unions do more harm than good.”

And while Stoops ap­plauds teacher en­gage­ment, he says they crossed a line when the May 16 rally, held on a school day, led to can­cel­la­tion of classes for more than a mil­lion stu­dents.

Sev­eral teacher ac­tivists said they’re care­ful to fo­cus on is­sues, not just party pol­i­tics — though with Repub­li­cans in charge at the state and fed­eral level, the GOP tends to be at the re­ceiv­ing end of crit­i­cism.

Bishay El­shoukarey, a CMS teacher who’s a Repub­li­can, started the Teach­ers United Face­book page. Easley, a col­league who’s a Demo­crat, joined him as an ad­min­is­tra­tor soon after­ward.

Easley said they de­cided to al­low non-ed­u­ca­tors, in­clud­ing pub­lic of­fi­cials, ad­vo­cates and jour­nal­ists, into the closed group to boost un­der­stand­ing of ed­u­ca­tor is­sues. And as ad­min­is­tra­tors they delete par­ti­san rants that aren’t fo­cused on facts and is­sues.

“While the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate to­day doesn’t make man­age­ment of the group easy, the ma­jor­ity of mem­bers un­der­stand that mod­er­ate pro-ed­u­ca­tion views are the way to go,” said El­shoukarey. “Hav­ing a bi-par­ti­san group ad­min­is­tra­tion has been a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of how unity is pos­si­ble.”

Whether it’s dis­cus­sion on the Face­book group or par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Teacher Voice project, ed­u­ca­tors say it has been much harder to get peo­ple from North Carolina’s small dis­tricts to speak up.

In larger dis­tricts, teach­ers have found sup­port from prin­ci­pals and dis­trict lead­ers. In CMS, for ex­am­ple, the school board is­sued a state­ment in Fe­bru­ary say­ing that “The Board will act to en­sure that em­ploy­ees feel free to ex­press their views with­out fear of ret­ri­bu­tion.”

“We’re not go­ing to get bet­ter if we don’t lis­ten to our teach­ers,” said CMS Su­per­in­ten­dent Clay­ton Wil­cox. This year Meck­len­burg County com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved money to boost the lo­cal sup­ple­ment for teach­ers, some­thing Wil­cox cites as an ex­am­ple of teacher voices mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.

Not all teach­ers get that kind of en­cour­age­ment.

Sci­oli, the Red4EdNC or­ga­nizer, said some Wayne County teach­ers have told her they’re afraid to take part even by wear­ing red on Wed­nes­days. “In gen­eral, ru­ral teach­ers have been a lot more afraid to speak up,” she said.

NEXT STEPS

North Carolina’s ed­u­ca­tion is­sues won’t change much in 2019. Teach­ers are still seek­ing more sup­port staff, bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties, more money for sup­plies and texts — and, yes, higher salaries. There will still be wran­gling about the best bal­ance be­tween dis­trict schools, char­ter schools and vouch­ers, and about the best way to use data to hold schools ac­count­able.

But the de­bates will play out in an al­tered po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Repub­li­cans still hold the ma­jor­ity in both houses of the Gen­eral As­sem­bly, but they no longer have the num­bers to over­ride Demo­cratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

For teach­ers, the ques­tion will be what role their voices play.

Wil­son, the for­mer NEA ex­ec­u­tive, is more op­ti­mistic than Hansen, the Brook­ings ex­pert who sees mo­men­tum fad­ing.

“When the power trans­lated into the elec­tion, which was also part of a strat­egy, then they knew they could make a dif­fer­ence,” Wil­con said. “That’s just go­ing to con­tinue. Teach­ers un­der­stand now that they have to be at the ta­ble them­selves.”

ETHAN HY­MAN The News & Ob­server

Marchers walk up Fayet­teville Street dur­ing the March for Stu­dents and Rally for Re­spect in May. The rally pulled an es­ti­mated 20,000 ed­u­ca­tors and sup­port­ers to Raleigh and closed school for more than 1mil­lion stu­dents, as su­per­in­ten­dents re­acted to over­whelm­ing re­quests for teacher leave days.

NANCY PIERCE File photo

Justin Par­menter, a teacher at Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg’s Wad­dell Lan­guage Acad­emy, has had opin­ion pieces about ed­u­ca­tion shared across the coun­try.

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