Image by Kanan Shah via COURIER
Image by Kanan Shah via COURIER

Some wonder if they can afford to stay in public education after the General Assembly adjourned for the year without approving a state budget to address salaries.

It’s a cliche, Leah Hendershot said, but she’s always wanted to be a teacher. “Most of us get into it because it’s all we’ve ever wanted to do.”

After eight years of teaching special education in Guilford County, North Carolina, however, Hendershot finds herself wondering if she can continue working in this field. She lives with her sister, who’s unable to work, and between the two of them, they have seven children. The household of nine depend on Hendershot’s income. “It wouldn’t be sufficient if it was just me and my two kids,” she told COURIER, “but it’s certainly not for all of us.”

North Carolina is ranked 34th in the country for teacher salary: According to the National Education Association, teachers in the state makes on average $51,321 a year. (Some, however, say it’s important to point out that not all teachers in the state make that much, depending on their level of seniority and if they live in a county that offers local teacher pay supplements.) Meanwhile, the national average is $60,477. 

But Hendshot’s frustrations go beyond her paycheck. “We are asked to do more and more and more with less and less. Our class sizes are getting bigger. We don’t have textbooks. We don’t have materials,” she explained. “We aren’t given anything for our classrooms; we have to provide everything for our classrooms out of pocket.”

In the face of a job that’s getting harder to manage every year, Hendershot said most mornings, she has to give herself a pep talk in the school’s parking lot. “You want to do what’s right by students, and you can’t. It’s an impossible situation.”

In November, the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly approved a bill that would have given teachers a 3.9% raise, and other full-time public school employees a 2% bump in pay. The increases would have been retroactive to July 1, 2019. Gov. Roy Cooper, however, vetoed the legislation in hopes of negotiating for better raises. 

“The General Assembly continues to shortchange teachers and non-certified school personnel like cafeteria workers, bus drivers and teacher assistants, despite a robust economy and decent raises for other state employees,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “Educators deserve more if our schools are to remain competitive with other states and keep good teachers.”

“The daily working conditions of teachers and bus drivers and all school workers are really demoralizing.”

Many educators say they supported Cooper’s veto. “The budget that the GOP tried to pass was absolute garbage,” Hendershot said. 

Or, as another teacher put it in a recent op-ed, “the legislation would have provided little more than table scraps” for a public school education system that’s severely underfunded.

“Ask a majority party legislator why they aren’t providing more for public education in North Carolina,” writes Justin Parmenter, a seventh grade language arts teacher in Charlotte, “and you’re likely to hear—as Rep. Craig Horn recently told the New York Times—’We simply don’t have the money.’ That excuse is wearing extremely thin as the General Assembly recently passed its sixth corporate tax cut in the last seven years.”

In March, Gov. Cooper released a two-year budget proposal that would have given teachers a 4.6% raise for the current school year and another 4.5% raise for 2020-21. The budget also included money to restore a bonus for teachers who obtain their master’s degree (which was eliminated in 2013); funds to offset the costs of hiring substitutes, which teachers have to pay for themselves when using personal leave; and a $500 recurring salary increase for approximately 45,000 teaching assistants, custodians, and bus drivers.

Beyond addressing the pay of public school employees, the governor also asked for $40 million to hire more nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and school resource officers; $29 million for textbooks, instructional supplies, and digital resources; and $10 million to strengthen educator workforce through professional development and support programs. 

According to a recent report from the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, North Carolina is ranked 46th in the country for how much funding the state provides per pupil. The national average of funding is $14,046 per student—North Carolina provides just $9,590.

“Low funding levels are a strong indicator that a state’s school finance system is driven by political and budgetary pressures,” the report’s authors write. “Breaking this entrenched pattern requires state lawmakers to enact finance reforms that provide the funding required to give all students a meaningful opportunity to achieve the state’s academic requirements.”

For several months, state leaders went back and forth over the budget—which included sparring over whether or not to expand Medicaid, a policy move Cooper fully supports. On Nov. 15, however, instead of returning to the table after the governor’s latest veto, legislators adjourned for the year without passing a full state budget.

The result of North Carolina lawmakers refusing to invest in public schools, said Angela Scioli, a 27-year high school social studies teacher in Wake County, is that kids don’t have access to the resources they need to thrive in school. “Just simple things,” she told COURIER, “like textbooks, materials, computers, counselors, nurses, social workers.” 

In 2013, Scioli launched Red4ED NC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping improve support for public education across the state; on Wednesdays, they wear red to silently protest the way educators are treated in the state. Last year and again on May 1, the organization worked with other local advocacy groups to rally thousands of North Carolina teachers to lobby the state legislature for better funding. Because so many people requested time off to participate in the Raleigh rally, more than 30 of the 115 school systems across the state had to close

“The daily working conditions of teachers and bus drivers and all school workers are really demoralizing,” Scioli said. “We don’t have enough resources. We don’t have enough adults in our buildings to meet the needs of our students.” In fact, more than 7,000 teacher assistant positions have been cut since 2008.

“It’s an incredible amount of work that we’re being asked to do with less and less resources, Scioli continued. “It’s a very stressful existence. We take a lot of time away from our families. We take a lot of money out of our pockets.”

Although state lawmakers have indicated a state budget that includes pay increases for public school employees will most likely not happen until January, Scioli and other advocates are continuing to call attention to the need for education funding. Some teachers have organized “walk-ins” in the morning before school, while others have rallied after classes.

Organize 2020, a racial and social justice caucus of the North Carolina Association of Educators, has also launched a petition to demand state lawmakers pass a proper budget that addresses the needs of the community. They call for a 5% raise for all public school employees, as well as for the state to expand Medicaid, which would benefit bus drivers, custodians, and other school workers who are underemployed but make too much to qualify for publicly funded health coverage.

“A whole lot of focus gets put on salary for teachers, but that’s unfortunate because that’s not what we’re really the most upset about,” Scioli said. “We really want our kids to have what they need and deserve. There are just not enough hands. If we could just not be spread so thinly, that would be a huge daily alleviation of stress.”

“Of course,” she added, “we’d like to be compensated fairly too.”

In November, an unnamed woman who teaches in Brunswick County emailed state Rep. Deb Butler, a New Hanover County Democrat, to share her personal financial struggles, including relying on friends for food. 

According to the email—which Butler posted on Twitter after a representative from the N.C. Republican Party submitted a public records request to “inspect” it—the teacher makes $4,840 a month for 10 months out of the year. After paying $975 in rent, insurance costs, daycare fees, loans and other bills, however, she has “$6.79 left in my bank account to now cover gas, groceries, and miscellaneous items that always arise.”

For Hendershot, the special education teacher, a raise this year would have meant not needing to take a second job doing data entry. 

“It would have also meant that I would have time to spend with my kids,” she said, “because I wouldn’t be working an extra 15 hours a week trying to figure out what we’re going to do as a state to get the budget passed that would give us increases in pay.” 

She added: “I believe in trying to work to fix this terrible situation we’re all in, but I don’t know if I can keep being a teacher if it stays like this.”