North Carolina’s Assault on Teachers Is Working

Getting schooled.
Jan. 5 2014 11:55 PM

Pay Our Teachers or Lose Your Job

North Carolina is pushing its best educators out. We have to do something.

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I cannot watch all this anymore and stay silent. So I’m acting out of character. At 8 a.m. one Friday last month, I went to a PTA meeting. I was nervous. It was my first time, which was embarrassing because my youngest is in fifth grade. As I walked in, another mom put me at ease. She said, “I hope it’s not too hot in there.” Under her fleece, she still had on her pajama top. 

She came to hear about the “Pay our Teachers First” campaign I created with a middle school teacher. Our goals are to raise awareness and deliver a simple message to North Carolina representatives: Pass legislation to get teacher pay back up to the national average, or we will vote you out.

Some people tell me this fight is futile—that Chapel Hill is a tiny blue bubble in a big state gunning to destroy public education. Recent polls suggest they are wrong. A nonpartisan survey from October 2013 showed that 76 percent of North Carolinians agree that public school teachers are paid too little, 71 percent think we cannot keep the most qualified teachers with the current pay scale, and 83 percent support increased pay for higher degrees. I love these data. They prove that the recent legislative assault on teachers does not reflect true North Carolina values.

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In November parents and teachers met in my home to listen to the teachers’ concerns and make a plan of action. We learned that, only a few months into the school year, our middle school had no more paper and printer ink and no funds to buy more. The next morning, parents brought them in. We are organizing volunteers to supervise lunch so our teachers will have a planning hour. I used to think “wearing red for public ed” on Wednesdays was silly. Now I understand that this quiet gesture shows we hear the demoralizing messages from Raleigh, and we disagree. A social studies teacher and I designed a red “Pay our Teachers First” T-shirt and a website to raise money and awareness. One chilly morning, parents and children held signs and cheered as teachers walked into work. A math teacher was so moved by this rare sign of recognition, she burst into tears. Our children made a film to encourage generous holiday donations. My neighbor Melinda set up a crowdfunding site to collect them. More than a hundred generous gifts came in so quickly, the Deposit a Gift site owner called to ask for our secret.

Meanwhile, booster campaigns and rumors of better pay do not stop teachers from leaving our schools. With every report of another talented teacher lured away from the profession or to another state by much better pay, I fear if we don’t act fast, our public schools will hemorrhage talent in the next year. In an anonymous survey of the middle school teachers at my son’s school, half said they are looking for other jobs.

There is so much more to do. We have to let our teachers know we have their backs. Although parents divide along so many lines—religious or secular, liberal or conservative, vegetarian or meat-eating, working in or outside the home—most of us deeply value our public schools. Together, we will test Margaret Mead’s belief “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Our children face a powerful, well-financed threat. We must show them we are here to protect their future. 

Deborah R. Gerhardt is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and the mother of three boys in public school.