This Wednesday more than 10,000 teachers are expected in Raleigh on the General Assembly's opening day to demand better pay and working conditions.
Veteran educators say those demands are about restoring education funding to what it was before the recession hit and a wave of Republican-led policies and tax cuts dismantled their benefits.
Teachers have adopted the tagline: "It's Personal."
Why now? Long-time complaints spurred by national momentum
The North Carolina Association of Educators has mobilized more than 13,000 teachers to call in personal days for the rally.
NCAE is North Carolina's largest public school organization, and the main lobbying group for educators. The Association decided at its annual March convention to call teachers to rally at the capitol on the General Assembly's opening day of its spring session, as legislators head in for more budget talks. The May 16 Day of Advocacy has since taken off, propelled by teachers organizing on social media and in their own schools.
That brings us to why educators are rallying on Wednesday. But why this year?
NCAE's President Mark Jewell says teachers across North Carolina have for months been watching teacher walk-outs in other states. He says teachers here are equally fed up with nearly a decade of state education policy that has fallen short; in which spending for schools, adjusted for inflation and population, has not yet returned to pre-recession levels.
What do educators want? Many, many things
Educators have many demands, and the messages from the NCAE and May 16 Coalition web pages, plus a handful of social media pages, have not yet crystallized into a cohesive agenda. Here are a number of the top priorities gleaned from organizers' sites, with annotation:
- Spending: Increase per-student spending, which is currently 39th in the nation and about $2,400 less per child than the national average.
- Teacher pay: Increase pay for educators with a plan to get to the national average and immediate across-the-board pay raises for all state employees. End performance-based pay for principals and teacher bonuses, reinstate a pay scale that values veteran educators, and restore pay incentives for master's and doctoral degrees. Currently, the National Educators Association estimates the average teacher pay in the state at $50,861, but NCAE says that average has been inflated by the salaries of veteran teachers whose higher salaries were grandfathered in from past policies. The salary schedule for teachers who did not have an advanced degree by the year 2013 tops out at $51,300. Principal pay was also overhauled this year, with potentially big losses for veteran principals.
- Health and Safety: Employ more school nurses, counselors, social workers and other support personnel. Expand Medicaid to provide affordable health care to the one-quarter of North Carolina students who live in poverty. Freeze any increases in health care costs for public employees. The House Select Committee on School Safety on Thursday also recommended measures to employ more school nurses, counselors and social workers. All have position-to-student ratios far behind national recommendations. Many of those support positions were cut following a major corporate tax break in 2013.
- Facilities: Fix crumbling schools and large class sizes with a statewide school construction bond. Schools are still scrambling to meet a statewide mandate to reduce class sizes in K-thru-3rd grade. That effort is forcing many schools to move classes into non-classroom spaces or trailers. A school construction bond has received verbal support from some Republican leaders.
- School choice: Place a moratorium on new charter schools and private school vouchers. Public school advocates say charter schools and vouchers are increasing segregation in schools and draining public funds away from public schools. More on vouchers here.
So, is this a strike? Technically, no
"This is not a walk-out, and this is not a sick-out," said NCAE President Jewell.
Teachers worked within the rules of their school districts to request personal days off to rally on May 16th. Many were prepared to pay a required $50 fee to support their own substitutes. More than two dozen school districts have closed due, in part, to the fact that they did not have enough substitute teachers to fill all the requests for personal days.
NCAE is an affiliate of the National Education Association, a national teacher union. However, teachers - and all other public employees in North Carolina - are legally barred from forming a union and do not have the power to collectively bargain.
While it is not a strike, teachers have effectively shut down school for one day for hundreds of thousands of students across the state.
How many students will stay home? More than a third of students in the state
More than 35 school districts have called off classes or opted for an optional teacher work-day. That includes the state's largest school districts, Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and other, mostly urban districts.
A number of schools will continue to provide lunch services for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch. Many high school students have Advanced Placement testing that day and Wake County Schools, for example, will bus students to take those exams.
Although students will lose one day of instruction, some districts have chosen not to make up the day because their calendars will still meet the 185 days of instruction required by state law.
What is the goal? March to the polls
"Our goal, our endgame, is actually November the 6th," Jewell said, referring to the upcoming general election, in which every state legislative seat is contested. "This is part of a six month stretch."
It is possible that lawmakers will pass some measures during the spring legislative session that meet teachers' requests, perhaps providing more support for positions like school nurses and counselors, or passing a statewide school construction bond. Both have support from some republican leaders in the legislature.
But NCAE says it is looking further down the road to elect pro-education candidates that will work with democratic governor Roy Cooper to broadly boost funding for North Carolina's public schools.