“It’s personal,” said the 48-year-old African American teacher Michelle Burton, a librarian in the Durham county school system, as she stood next to a marching band playing the Star Wars theme under a banner that said Education Strikes Back.
Burton was far from alone. She was one of some 20,000 teachers and their supporters who used personal days on Wednesday to call out of work, forcing 40 North Carolina school districts to cancel classes for more than 1 million students.
Using the Twitter hashtag #ItsPersonal, the protest marked the sixth state to go on strike since West Virginia teachers successfully struck in March, highlighting low salaries and poorly funded public schools. The series of strikes in the education sector have won plaudits from across the labor movement and have struck a chord as public opinion polling shows overwhelming support. They have also won concrete economic gains in terms of pay rises in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Burton, a second generation graduate of the University of North Carolina, said the underfunding of public schools was something she truly did take personally. Her father, a graduate of the class of 1965, helped integrate the university during the civil rights era. “North Carolina had this reputation as a Southern state that was very progressive, we would go back to that if we funded our schools,” said Burton.
However, over the last two decades of teaching, Burton has seen that system deteriorate. North Carolina stood 39th nationwide in terms of public school teacher pay in 2017 and teachers’ wages have fallen by 9.4% in real terms over the last decade. Over the same period, spending on public schools here has dropped by 8%.
Burton says race plays a big role in the decision of the majority white Republican legislature to cut the state’s public school budget.
“The children that are coming to [public] school now are mainly children of color, black and brown kids,” she said. “There is a correlation where funding of public education has decreased with the rise of more children of color going to public schools. This is a civil right issue.”
Teachers marching on the Capitol said they were there for many reasons and highlighted the impact low wages were having on their own lives and their ability to teach their students.
“I have to work other jobs and it’s not fair because it takes away from the energy that I have to put into teaching,” said Kaitlyn Davis, 26, a 4th grade teacher from Garner, North Carolina.
Davis said she makes only $32,000 a year and works on the weekend as a waitress at a sports bar to help afford supplies for her students. Prior to the strike, Davis hadn’t gone to a protest, but after speaking with her mother, who went on strike as a teacher in Colorado, Davis decided to join the growing movement.
“I never really participated in a rally before, I don’t really like animosity,” she said. “But then I really did my research on this and I decided that I really wanted to stand up for something really good”.
Davis – along with many protesters and their leaders – said she saw the movement as something that would achieve their goals, either by persuading politicians to their cause or by teachers running for office themselves.
It is a message that has already had an impact on local politics. The Democratic party in North Carolina hopes that running on raising teacher pay will help take back the North Carolina general assembly in November.
Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, told the crowd that low teacher pay was “unacceptable”. He then laid out a plan to raise taxes on corporations and those making above $200,000, giving teachers an 8% average pay increase, with some receiving raises as high as 14%.
“It is tax fairness for teacher pay,” Cooper said. “It is plain and simple. Corporations and people making above $200,000 a year have had big [tax] cuts over the last few years from both the state of North Carolina and the federal government … Let’s use that money to raise teacher pay instead.”
As news helicopters hovered overhead and the rain began to pick up, the National Education Association vice-president, Becky Pringle, a 31-year veteran of the classroom, took to the stage.
“You are in the fight of your lives,” Pringle told the crowd. “In the fight of your lives to ensure that your students have the kind of education that inspires their imagination and prepares them to live into their brilliance.”
“So you can’t be shy about your fierceness or your power,” said Pringle. “So North Carolina my question to you today is – what are you prepared to do?”
“Whatever it takes,” shouted back the crowd.