Roger Schultz is a teacher. For 20 years, he’s taught severely handicapped students. Today, he’s standing outside Riverside High School, doing what he normally does – greeting every bleary-eyed, head-phone-wearing student who comes off the bus.
Usually the students nod or ignore him, but today is a little different. In his hands, Schultz is holding a hand-written sign. And what it says – “Stop Pushing Teachers Off The Plank” - catches the students’ attention.
Behind Schultz dozens of other teachers are wearing red, and some are also carrying signs. As cars pull up to let students out, they smile and begin to chant.
There’s another large group of teachers out by the road. Some have been educators for decades, while others are just starting out.
“The morale is low. Teachers are fed up. It’s terrible,” says Monica Skipwith, a second-year English teacher. “And considering this is a profession that I love and I want to be in for the long haul I want to make sure that my job is secure and make sure that I am able to do my job by teaching students, having the materials that I need, and having the money that I need to survive.”
Teachers across North Carolina staged dozens of protests on school grounds yesterday. They called them “walk-ins” and they were held in counties across the state, including Mecklenburg, Buncombe, Wake, Guilford, and Durham.
They say the North Carolina Legislature did not fund education adequately. That includes no money for textbooks, no teacher raises, eliminating tenure, enacting a voucher program for private schools, and ending salary supplements for teachers who earn a master’s degree.
Teachers aren’t the only ones who are worked up.
“If someone has to put up with me for seven hours a day I feel like they should get paid well for it,” says Hunter Heilman, a senior at Riverside High School.
Heilman feels teacher pay should rank higher than 46th in the country, but he’s even more concerned with North Carolina’s other ranking: 45th in per-pupil spending, including a zeroing out of all textbook funding this past summer.
“My calculus textbook is falling apart,” he says. “It’s literally falling apart at the spine. Which I think is ridiculous enough that we can’t get funding enough for even the basic needs like that.”
At EK Powe Elementary, not too far away, the “walk-in” event has a much more overtly political feel – complete with careful staging, a malfunctioning P.A. system and TV cameras. There are still teachers, parents, and students here, but there are also elected officials. All are Democrats, like State Senator Mike Woodard, who stands on the front steps of the neoclassical revival style school building as he blasts his political opponents.
“Our public schools have never been under greater attack,” says Woodard. “Our colleagues in the general assembly majorities really started defunding public education. And it has serious repercussions that are going to last for generations if we can’t turn the tide very quickly.”
In a written statement, Senate leader Phil Berger denounced the walk-ins. He said he appreciates the “overwhelming majority” of teachers but called the protests “bully tactics.” He also said schools were not the place for politics and kids should not be used as “pawns.”
Governor Pat McCrory also debates the notion that school funding has been cut. “At $7.8 billion this is the largest K-thru-12 budget in North Carolina history,” he said in a speech back in August to the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce.
That assessment does not take into account inflation or the 34,000 additional students that have enrolled in the past five years.
The more important numbers for the future of public education are these: 80 percent of those surveyed in a September Elon University poll believe North Carolina teachers are underpaid. Just two percent thought they were overpaid.
If any of this public sentiment is to turn into legislative action, it will have to wait until May, when the General Assembly convenes for its short session.