North Carolina teachers are fed up with education funding cuts dating back to 2008, so on Wednesday they headed en masse to the Capitol in Raleigh. And in a departure from the states whose teachers walked out before, North Carolina's educators are also fighting for a Medicaid expansion.
"We've been waiting too long, and it's time for us to show the General Assembly how strong the support for public schools is in our state," Kristin Beller, a kindergarten teacher at Joyner Elementary School and president-elect of the Wake County Association of Educators, told VICE News. “North Carolina teachers started realizing we don't have to actually settle for anything; we can fight for what our kids deserve.”
At least 42 of the state’s 115 school districts were closed Wednesday, including the 16 largest, representing more than 1 million students. While it’s illegal for employees in North Carolina to strike, so many teachers took personal days that there weren’t enough substitutes to cover for them, leading to the district closures.
North Carolina teachers currently make $10,000 less per year than the average teacher salary in the U.S. The North Carolina Education Association, one of the state’s teachers’ unions, has proposed livable raises for all public school employees and increases in the average teacher salary to match the national average within four years.
“I made more in the late '90s and the early 2000s than I do now,” Shana Broders, a fifth-grade teacher at Wake Forest Elementary and 25-year veteran of the profession, told VICE News. “We didn't pay as much for our health insurance, and our health insurance coverage was so much better.”
The state’s per-pupil spending is currently $9,528, well under the national average of $11,934. The North Carolina Education Association wants their state legislators to increase that spending to the national average within four years.
“The [state] General Assembly passed these laws and made cuts that basically stripped the public schools of their funding and their resources, which created these conditions where schools were starving for resources,” Beller said.
Broders told VICE News that a book her class uses was published in 2000.
“So many kids have used [the books] that there's no more room for children to write in it because they don't buy us textbooks,” Broders said.
“These cuts actually affect children. These are children's lives [the state legislators] are playing with, real people and their lives,” she added.
The North Carolina Education Association is also pushing for changes that would improve student health and school safety. That includes funding for at least 500 additional school nurses, social workers and counselors, and the state accepting the Medicaid expansion that was offered by the Affordable Care Act.
“We think that that's not only the correct and the moral thing to do, but as educators, our students' well-being and their literal health comes first,” Todd Warren, president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, said.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, tried to expand Medicaid after being elected in 2016, but North Carolina’s state GOP legislative leaders filed a lawsuit to stop him. That suit was dropped in 2017. The Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the General Assembly, have now said that they will expand Medicaid — as long as work requirements for coverage are included.
North Carolina’s taxpayers are currently paying more than $1 billion a year to fund the program while other states reap the benefits.
“We're paying for it for all the other states, you know? So we might as well have our kids benefiting from it. It's just a bad look if [the state legislators] don't do it,” Beller said.
While the May 16 day of action won’t extend into a days-long walkout, Beller said it will be a “launching pad” to show “how many people support public schools, how many people are willing to come together to fight for our kids.”
And with all 170 General Assembly seats up for election in November, the union will also be working on organizing and laying the groundwork for pro-teacher election victories this summer.
“It's really heartening and heartwarming to see this movement for public education taking root around the country,” Warren said. “And I hope that this is the beginning of us digging in for the long haul to get what we all need.”
Cover image: Thousands of teachers crowd Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, N.C. on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 as they march to the N.C. Legislative building during the "March for Students and Rally for Respect," the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history. Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images.