A de­bate: Should NC teach­ers go on strike?

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Mem­bers of the Char­lotte Ob­server and Raleigh News & Ob­server editorial boards don’t al­ways agree. That’s a good thing. We chal­lenge each other’s thoughts and, some­times, change each other’s minds. Some­times we don’t.

That’s what hap­pened this week with news that the North Carolina As­so­ci­a­tion of Ed­u­ca­tors plans to quiz teach­ers about their will­ing­ness to strike over teacher pay if the leg­is­la­ture doesn’t meet its de­mands of a 5 per­cent raise and other ben­e­fits. In a meet­ing Wed­nes­day, the NCAE board de­cided to hire a poll­ster to sur­vey ed­u­ca­tors. NCAE mem­bers may take ac­tion, in­clud­ing a walk­out, de­pend­ing on the re­sults later this year.

Is a strike a good idea? Here are a cou­ple of editorial board per­spec­tives, rep­re­sented by As­so­ciate Ed­i­tor Ned Bar­nett and N.C. Opin­ion Ed­i­tor Peter St. Onge. We want your per­spec­tive, too, espe­cially if you’re an ed­u­ca­tor. Email us your thoughts at [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com.

YES: TAKE AC­TION LAW­MAK­ERS NO­TICE

North Carolina’s pub­lic school teach­ers know math and his­tory and the math and his­tory of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in North Carolina over the past eight years tell them the same thing: It’s time to walk.

The math is plain: School fund­ing was cut dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion a decade ago and has not re­turned to any­thing near ad­e­quate. A con­sul­tant’s re­port pre­pared for the judge over­see­ing the Le­an­dro school fund­ing law­suit says that North Carolina needs to spend an ad­di­tional $8 bil­lion over the next eight years to bring pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion up to a de­cent qual­ity.

The his­tory is equally clear. Since Repub­li­cans took con­trol of the Gen­eral Assem­bly in 2011, pub­lic schools have taken a pum­mel­ing. It hasn’t been just a lack of fund­ing. It has been a lack of re­spect.

School teach­ers, other school em­ploy­ees and par­ents have protested the cuts and the ha­rass­ment. They’ve met with leg­is­la­tors, signed pe­ti­tions and marched by the thou­sands on the Leg­isla­tive Build­ing — twice. All to no avail. In­stead of help, they’ve got­ten gaslight­ing. Repub­li­can lead­ers say there is no prob­lem, that big money is be­ing spent on schools, that North Carolina’s teach­ers are get­ting good raises.

Rea­son­able, teacher-like ac­tions haven’t moved the leg­is­la­ture. Now is the time to act like work­ers and ad­vo­cates for chil­dren and for the fu­ture of North Carolina. Teach­ers should walk out un­til leg­is­la­tors wake up. An elec­tion year is the best time to get their at­ten­tion.

Many teach­ers are wary of a mass, open-ended walk­out. A strike by pub­lic em­ploy­ees is il­le­gal in North Carolina. Chil­dren will miss school. Par­ents will be up­set. Repub­li­cans will la­bel them self­ish. But teach­ers in oth­ers states, some fac­ing the same le­gal risks, have taken this bold step. They’ve got­ten the at­ten­tion and gained re­sults in West Vir­ginia, Ken­tucky, Ari­zona and In­di­ana.

The NCAE is go­ing to sur­vey how many teach­ers would sup­port a job ac­tion. That’s a sen­si­ble step, but if teach­ers’ con­cerns are sin­cere there can only be one an­swer at this late hour as so many chil­dren are be­ing de­prived of the ed­u­ca­tion they de­serve — and the ed­u­ca­tion North Carolina can read­ily af­ford. It’s time for what can’t be ig­nored: Leave the class­rooms un­til law­mak­ers agree to sup­port pub­lic schools.

— Ned Bar­nett

NO: DON’T RISK THE MO­MEN­TUM

It’s not hard to un­der­stand why North Carolina teach­ers are frus­trated. They’re un­der­paid, em­bar­rass­ingly so. Their lat­est raise is stalled in a standoff be­tween the Repub­li­can leg­is­la­ture and Demo­cratic gover­nor. Teach­ers de­serve more, and they de­serve bet­ter.

But should they strike for it?

It’s surely tempt­ing, with Repub­li­cans brag­ging about teacher raises yet ig­nor­ing teacher pay rank­ings. It surely would be sat­is­fy­ing, too, to raise their voices above the squab­ble in Raleigh and get every­one’s fuller at­ten­tion by walk­ing out of some class­rooms.

But if the ul­ti­mate goal is to get money, then the best path for teach­ers is to gain the po­lit­i­cal up­per hand. A strike might do the op­po­site.

North Carolina is hardly a union friendly state. We have the sec­ond low­est union mem­ber­ship rate in the coun­try at 2.2 per­cent and pub­lic sec­tor col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is banned here. The NCAE is not tech­ni­cally a union, but it’s seen by the pub­lic as one, and a teacher walk­out would be viewed as a union-type ac­tiv­ity. That’s risky.

It also would be a di­rect slap at Repub­li­can lead­ers in Raleigh, who have a his­tory of stub­born­ness when chal­lenged di­rectly. That might be a mis­take for teach­ers, be­cause at the mo­ment, Repub­li­cans are backpedal­ing on teacher pay. They’re hand­ing out raises — too small, yes, but enough to show that teach­ers have gained some po­lit­i­cal edge.

The fastest way to lose that mo­men­tum is to turn North Carolini­ans against you. While many might sym­pa­thize with teach­ers, at least some who side with ed­u­ca­tors now would see a walk­out as an il­le­gal ac­tion, an ex­treme mea­sure and, yes, a lib­eral union move. Repub­li­cans cer­tainly would paint a work stop­page that way in the walkup to a crit­i­cal Novem­ber elec­tion — one that has the po­ten­tial to bring teach­ers closer to a friendly N.C. leg­is­la­ture.

Yes, ed­u­ca­tors are frus­trated, and they have rea­son to be. But they’re get­ting closer to a break­through on teacher pay. A strike might be sat­is­fy­ing, but walk­ing out may be tak­ing a step back­ward.

— Peter St. Onge

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