A Letter to N.C. Students: Here's Why Your Teachers Are Marching
No doubt you’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about North Carolina schools closing on May 1. An unexpected day off is always big news. But one in which school districts all over the state are closing so teachers can go to our state’s capital and march is even bigger.
State Senator Phil Berger, one of the most powerful politicians in North Carolina, said in a recent Facebook post that teachers who are going to Raleigh are abandoning you and that their actions have nothing to do with education. In comments on the post, his supporters called us greedy and Communist and said we should be fired.
As one of the thousands of North Carolina educators who will be in Raleigh on May 1, I wanted to set the record straight and be sure you understand the reasons we’re doing this.
The legislators who are leading this state have done a lot of things to make people not want to be teachers in North Carolina. Since 2011, they have taken away due-process protections for new teachers, eliminated pay increases for educators with graduate degrees, and revoked retirement health benefits for all state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2021. They have added more standardized tests, removed the capon how many students can be in a class in grades 4-12, and gotten rid of more than 7,000 teaching assistants over the past decade. These and more terrible policies have caused many great teachers to have left the state, and a lot of people who would have made excellent educators have decided not to become teachers at all. Last school year, we had more than 1,500 teaching positions in North Carolina with no teacher.
We are not, as Berger has said, abandoning you. I hope you’ve noticed this year how consistently I show up. The 178 unused sick days in my Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools employee account are a testament to how important I think it is for me to be at school. I would much rather be in class with you all on May 1, too, but our legislators spend weekends at home with their families, so we have to go to Raleigh on a work day to be able to speak with them.
In addition to teaching you English, I do my best to help you learn about character, about how people should act in this world. One of the lessons I’ve tried to emphasize for you is the importance of standing up for what you believe in and having the courage to do the right thing—even in the face of adversity.
We want our students to have committed, high-quality teachers in your classes so that you can have the brightest future possible. Part of the reason we’re marching in Raleigh is to fix some of the damage that has been done, by restoring pay for teachers’ graduate degrees that was taken away and returning health insurance for state employees after they retire so they don’t have to spend a good chunk of their limited retirement pay to buy it for themselves. Both those moves and the 5 percent pay raise we’re asking for will help us to be sure we can put an excellent teacher in every classroom.
One of our goals is also $15 per-hour minimum for all hourly employees such as our custodians, secretaries, cafeteria staff, and bus drivers. People like Ms. Hardy, Mr. Jose, and Ms. Tammie at my school are some of the most valuable members of our school families. They work so hard to get you to school, welcome parents and visitors in the front office, feed you so you’re ready to learn, and keep our buildings clean every day. Unfortunately, many of our employees have to go to another job as soon as they leave school, sometimes working a total of 70 to 80 hours a week just so they can pay their rent and afford groceries. They deserve to have more time to spend with their families and taking care of themselves, and we hope this increase in their pay can help to make that happen.
Another important issue we’re marching for is to get our state’s lawmakers to hire more nurses, librarians, social workers, psychologists, and school counselors. Have you noticed that many times when you’re sick there’s nobody in the nurse’s office to help you? How too often when you need to talk to someone they’re already in a meeting? How hard it is to find a time to go get that book you’ve been wanting in the media center? We believe it shouldn’t be like that in our schools, that you should have access to all the services you need to be healthy and well rounded. The thing is, it’s expensive to hire all of those people. For this school year, the state is paying $647 million for all of those jobs I mentioned. To provide the numbers of people that are recommended by national standards for those positions, the North Carolina Justice Center estimates that the state would need to more than double that amount by adding another $655 million.
But here’s the crazy thing: Those same leaders who don’t want to spend the money to make sure we have nurses and librarians have cut taxes for rich people and wealthy companies so they can put more money in their already-full pockets. The last round of tax cuts for our state’s 2017-19 budget took away $900 million a year in revenue—way more than enough for us to provide the necessary support staff in every school in North Carolina. I don’t think it makes us greedy or Communists to ask for those priorities to change.
Last of all, we’re going to Raleigh on May 1 to ask legislators to expand Medicaid. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but don’t earn enough to buy private health insurance. We are one of only 14 states that have not taken advantage of federal funding to offer Medicaid to more of those families. If that changes, more of your parents will have access to good medical care and more eligible children will be enrolled as well. Having regular check-ups and preventative care will reduce time off of work and school days missed, and lead to better results for everyone.
We have tried writing, calling, emailing our state legislators to let them know what we need, and little has changed. It’s time for us to increase the pressure. Hopefully you can see that the reason we’re taking a day to go to Raleigh is to fight for you and your families. We care deeply about your future (and your present) and want to be sure we are providing you with the education that you deserve.
Justin Parmenter is a 7th grade language arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, N.C. He writes about education in North Carolina at notesfromthechalkboard.com, and you can find him on Twitter at @JustinParmenter.