Image via Shutterstock Image via Shutterstock

The North Carolina Association of Educators is gauging interest to see how far teachers are willing to go to push back against draconian cuts to public education.

An online survey being shared with North Carolina teachers leads with an important question. It’s the type a person has to sit with for a minute before answering because it puts family, principles, bank account, survival, and even a sense of identity on the line. 

“What are you willing to risk to help us win the funding that we all deserve?”

Organized by NCAE Organize 2020 Racial & Social Justice Caucus, an advocacy offshoot of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the survey aims to find out how far educators will go to push back against draconian cuts that have impacted not only their welfare but also their ability to do their jobs. 

Simply put, are North Carolina teachers willing to call a statewide strike?  

According to the survey, organizers want to know if teachers across the state would consider missing work to force the Republican-controlled General Assembly to accede to a list of demands. Included among them is a pay raise, Medicaid expansion, and a $15 an hour minimum wage increase for non-teaching school employees, such as bus drivers and support staff.

“The disrespect shown to North Carolina educators over the past year has been unparalleled in scope, and it is clear that what educators have done to this point is insufficient to make our needs heard by leaders at the General Assembly,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said in a statement

The NCAE Board of Directors, he continued, will discuss possible next steps, including a potential walkout, after they receive the results of the survey.

The impasse stems from a state budget fight between the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Last year, Cooper vetoed the GOP’s proposed budget because it didn’t expand Medicaid, give teachers an adequate raise, or reinstate benefits cut by the General Assembly. Republican leaders say the 3.9% raise they’re offering teachers is generous, but Democrats want to see teachers’ pay increase by 5%. 

With the GOP unwilling to compromise and unable to override the governor’s veto, North Carolina still has not passed a budget for fiscal years 2019-2021. As the state’s largest teachers union, the NCAE hopes to force the General Assembly’s hand to end the stalemate favorably for teachers with big gains in pay, health care, and benefits. 

As Laura Sanford of New Hanover County Public Schools told the Charlotte Observer: “I believe it is imperative that we strike. With 23 years experience and a master’s degree, I have been making the same amount of money for years … and will continue to make the same amount. … It is past time for educators to act. We need to strike and we need to do it as soon as possible and for as long as it takes.”

A strike, however, would put teacher’s jobs at risk. Under state law, public employees are prohibited from striking. Anyone who violates this law could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor and lose their teaching license. 

Nicole is a 20-year veteran English teacher in Cabarrus County. Not only has she received the survey, but she’s also helping to distribute it online to teachers across her county. (Because North Carolina is a right-to-work state without employee protections, Nicole has requested COURIER not use her real name.)

A secretary for her local NCAE chapter and a founding member of local teachers’ group Cabarrus County Teachers United, Nicole said it’s necessary for teachers to oppose bad policies, which have done more than just make it harder for teachers to do their jobs. The health and well-being of students are at risk, she said, as well as the future of education in North Carolina.

For each of the issues highlighted in the survey, teachers are asked to indicate how many days of work they’re willing to miss. Nicole said most of the colleagues she’s spoken to are prepared to go on a five-day strike. She said she’s also willing to walk out for five days.     

“[The Republican leadership] has touted a 3.9% increase but it’s false. They’re counting it over a two-year period,” she explained. “The first year the raise is 1.9% and then the next year it’s a second increase.”

Additionally, the GOP’s proposed raise would only impact teachers who have 16 or more years of experience.

“It is past time for educators to act. We need to strike and we need to do it as soon as possible and for as long as it takes.”

Low pay is precipitating a teaching crisis that’s led to a shrinking teacher pipeline, Nicole continued. According to a November 2018 report by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Schools First NC, the number of college students enrolling in undergraduate education programs across the University of North Carolina public university system is down 41% since 2010. 

“There are too many teachers that are doing extra jobs, and who are leaving the classroom after four or five years because they simply can’t afford to make ends meet,” she said. 

Other issues addressed in the survey include a $15 minimum wage for support staff, a return to increased pay for teachers who have master’s degrees, and the reinstatement of state retiree health benefits.

Educators are also fighting for Medicaid expansion, which North Carolina has considered adopting but has not as of yet . 

“That’s something that we want for our students,” Nicole explained. “When they come to my classroom sick or worried about a sick parent, they are not in the state of mind to learn.” 

She recalled a student presenting an argument for universal health care for an Advanced Placement English class. “When she [started] talking about why she had chosen this [topic], she broke down crying because her cousin had diabetes and had died because she couldn’t afford insulin.”

Although North Carolina teachers have been emboldened by successful teacher strikes in right-to work-states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, Nicole is doubtful a protracted strike could happen in North Carolina. In addition to the threat of punishment under state law, she said other factors may dampen educators’ ardor for a walk-out, including concerns of retribution from local school boards for stoking controversy.

“The county office wants to present a good face to the parents and the community, [so] you downplay the bad parts,” Nicole said. “There’s a real culture of fear here.”