Surrounded by a sea of red t-shirts, Chelsea Bartel stretched her arms to hold up a banner in front of the state Capitol. She’s used to being stretched thin; as a school psychologist for Durham and Wake Counties, she oversees twenty-two hundred students, four times ratio recommended by national experts.
“I’m kind of doing the job of four people right now, and then I work on the side to make more money because it still doesn’t pay that well,” Bartel said.
She joined thousands of other educators, parents, and teachers Wednesday to rally for better pay and more support in the classroom. This was the second #RedforED rally; last year’s event drew twenty thousand educators from across the state.
This year, the teachers expanded their demands to include minimum wage for all school workers, including custodians and bus drivers, more counselors and psychologists to help support students emotional needs, and Medicaid expansion.
While House Republicans have proposed a budget that would increase the average teacher salary to $55,600 by 2020, many teachers say that’s still not enough. The national average is $61,782, according to the National Education Association.
Republicans have also offered a $145 stipend for classroom supplies, about half what teachers at Durham’s Lakewood Elementary school reported spending in a year, and dangled the possibility of even higher raises for teachers who come up with innovative solutions to increase test scores.
House Speaker Tim Moore said he “appreciated [the teachers] being there,” Wednesday as he scurried around the protesters in Halifax Mall on his way into the legislative office building.
“The teachers I’ve spoken to have been very happy with what our budget proposed, so we’re going to keep building on that,” Moore told the INDY. As for support staff salaries, “As much as we can fund, we will. We’ll do that.”
Few in the crowd seemed to agree. They say recent salary hikes don’t make up for years of frozen and lagging wages that fail to keep up with the cost of living.
After marching up Fayetteville Street and rallying in Halifax Mall, participants met with legislators. Educators came armed with specific demands and a scorecard of where each lawmaker stood on their requests. Throughout the afternoon rally, they repeated how many votes they had—and how many they had left to go—on each issue. By the end of the rally, they had enough legislators to pass their demands in the House but were still behind in the Senate, they said.
While educators feared retribution for taking the day off to protest last year, it’s legislators who should be afraid this time around, said Durham Association of Educators president Bryan Proffitt. Following last year’s march, Democrats broke Republican supermajorities in both the House and the Senate.
“Are y’all scared now?” he asked.
“No!” the crowd roared back.
Educators were also unafraid to call out Mark Johnson, the state superintendent, who encouraged educators in an email not to join the event but instead rally on a day when school isn’t in session. Several signs called out a website the Department of Public Instruction launched earlier this week that teachers said provides misleading and incomplete information about their pay. When Johnson’s name was mentioned during the rally, the crowd booed.
Prior to the rally, Senate leader Phil Berger had called the North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the event, “far-left” and said its aim was to elect more Democrats. But Mark Jewell, the NCAE president, denied that the effort is partisan.
“We didn’t care if you were Democrat or Republican,” he said. “We cared if you valued public education.”
Participants also seemed aware that this year’s rally could be the last of its kind, if a legislative proposal passes that would prohibit teachers from using personal leave unless they can first line up a substitute.
The Reverend William J. Barber II, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, told educators their cause was morally and constitutionally just. Current legislative leaders, he said, are “regressive extremists that have hijacked the Republican Party” and “have failed on all counts” to support North Carolina’s children, educators, and the poor.
“We’ve come together here because it’s time to teach them a lesson,” he said. “The things they are doing are constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically and educationally insane.”
Several Democratic lawmakers could be seen shaking hands at the rally. Governor Cooper took the stage and told educators they do “so much more” than teach skills like math and reading. Highlighting the fatal shooting at UNC-Charlotte Tuesday night, Cooper said that action is needed to ensure schools are safe—and arming teachers isn’t the way to do it.
“You comfort them in times of trouble,” Cooper said. “You instill in them a sense of purpose and direction. And you are often the first line of defense for crises big and small. Educators are key to strong, safe communities and you deserve support in the many roles you play.”
In 2013, North Carolina stopped offering pay bumps to teachers who get advanced degrees, and in 2017, legislators ended retirement health benefits for state employees, including teachers, who are hired after January 1, 2021. Rally participants want to see both restored. The proposed House budget would reinstate master’s degree pay.
Linda Noble, a first-grade teacher at Mills Park Elementary in Cary, said most teachers’ pay scales top out at the average salary of $53,975. Noble said she earns near the average, even though she has taught for twenty-six years and has a master’s degree. Her youngest daughter is about to enter college and considered becoming a teacher, but Noble said she can’t encourage her to do so unless she leaves the state.
Nancy Pope and Mary Foster wanted to support current and future teachers even though they’ve retired. They say educators got more respect when they were teaching. But insufficient pay and support staff were problems then, just as they are now.
“It makes us understand why no one wants to go into education now,” Pope said. “We were around during the good ol’ days when teachers got some respect—some respect. I don’t know that that’s there anymore.”
Shelia Lister said Cabarrus County, where she teaches first grade, is “losing teachers all the time” to schools in nearby Mecklenburg, where they can earn thousands more. Lister has been teaching for twenty-five years, and got a pay bump for earning her master’s, but still brings home $46,000, she said. Raises legislators have given teachers in recent years aren’t enough to make up for five years of nearly stagnant wages, cuts to pay incentives like longevity pay, and all the money educators spend out of pocket on their classrooms, she said.
While North Carolina ranks twenty-ninth in teacher pay, the state lags behind national recommended staffing for school counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers.
Symone Kiddoo, a social worker with Durham Public Schools, described talking to a student who had been acting up about being scared of the fights and guns he saw in his neighborhood.
“I can feel my breath catch in my throat as this six-year-old tells me he doesn’t think anyone would care if he died,” she told the crowd. “This boy’s voice and his story have stuck with me—not only because no child should have to feel this way, but because I know there are so many other children’s voices that go unheard. They go unheard because there is one school psychologist for every two thousand and eighty-three students in North Carolina.”
For all support staffers do for North Carolina children, Asheville teaching assistant Keena Proctor said, legislators should fund raises beyond the $15 minimum wage educators asked for Wednesday. Last year, state employees saw their minimum wage raised to $15 per hour last year, public school and community college employees were carved out.
“You wipe their noses every day,” she said. “You’re worth it.”
Proctor said she’s worked at her school “longer than anyone”—twenty-six years—but earns $12.47 an hour. At fifty-one, she said she can’t afford to live alone; she lives with her parents.
Kristy Moore, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educations, said last year’s action was “just the beginning.”
“Don’t make us have to come back.”
Leah Abrams and Cliff Jenkins contributed to this story.