Teachers came by the busload Wednesday to Raleigh, seeking a voice over not just education matters but debates of the day.
Wearing their red shirts and hoisting homemade signs, the second annual Day of Action sought to bring attention to pay, working conditions and larger social issues that trickle down to the classroom students.
Enough educators stepped off the job Wednesday that more than 30 school systems closed for the day, unable to staff enough substitutes.
The demands were real enough: provide a $15-an-hour minimum wage for support staff; 5 percent raises for employees; more librarians, psychologists and other staff; expand Medicaid; reinstate retiree health benefits long term; and restore extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees.
What lessons were learned from this? Mostly ones of politics and theater.
A full day before teachers landed in Raleigh, the General Assembly took the wind out of their sails by adding into a proposed budget another pay raise for teachers, smaller raises for support staff, and restoring extra pay for advanced degrees.
“This is not advocacy. This is not a ‘work day,’” said one Republican state senator, Ralph Hise. “This is a political rally for Democrats that’s keeping nearly 1 million kids out of school.”
And while the Republican-dominated General Assembly made great show of how statewide teacher pay has gone from 43rd nationally to 29th, teachers were having none of it.
As they marched down the streets of Raleigh, teachers talked of having second jobs and their children qualifying for reduced-price lunches at school.
“We are still feeling like we don’t have the tools we need to support our students,” said one teacher.
The state has done a decent job of increasing salaries, though more work needs to be done for support staff like bus drivers, cafeteria workers and maintenance staff. According to the state’s salary schedule, a first-year teacher today earns $35,000. Many North Carolina counties also contribute a supplemental pay stipend. In Moore County, that supplement is $2,800 in year one, gradually increasing over the years. So a first-year teacher locally will earn almost $38,000.
In the end, the posturing on both sides did little to advance matters. The truth is the General Assembly is improving its effort — albeit, slowly — at higher pay, school safety and support. They could do more, and be less officious about it in the process.
The N.C. Association of Educators has lessons of its own to learn. The NCAE might not like the pace of change, but its members are getting marginally better support than they’ve had previously. It needs to stop weaponizing the school day and alienating its parent allies.