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North Carolina Becomes the Front Line of a Brutal Corporate Assault on Education Raging in America

The final Moral Monday protest of 2013 in Raleigh focused on the future of schools in a once-progressive state.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Kristin Rawls

 

Corporate education forces are on a destructive march throughout the U.S. While busting teachers' unions has been long been an initiative of the GOP and Christian Right, it’s also on the agendas of urban mayors like Chicago Democrat Rahm Emmanuel and New York City independent Michael Bloomberg. And it’s a large component of the regressive agenda that has sparked mass popular uprisings in Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.

Enter the notoriously right-wing North Carolina General Assembly. The NCGA has been on the warpath since 2010, when the Tea Party took the state legislature and for the first time in over 150 years of NC history, conservatives gained control of both houses. Since coming to power, they have mounted vicious attacks on voting rights, abortion rights, Medicaid access, unemployment benefits, and public education.

The extreme agenda has prompted the North Carolina NAACP and its president, Rev. Dr. William Barber, to spearhead the Forward Together coalition movement, a broad-based group of 150 organizations in the state, including everything from NARAL Pro-Choice NC to Black Workers for Justice joining together in the fight. The coalition is best-known for drawing tens of thousands to the General Assembly between April and July to protest the aggressive legislative session. The protests galvanized public support throughout the state and led to 925 civil disobedience-related arrests in the NCGA.

It’s no accident that the NC-NAACP-led coalition has made public education a rallying point. Rev. Dr. Barber first gained widespread recognition in the state for his advocacy on behalf of public schools. He became a central figure in Triangle-area organizing against the resegregation of Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools, as well as school choice policies in Wake County that would have destroyed the area’s progress fostering diversity and equal opportunity.

Privatized Education Takes NC by Storm—And NC Teacher Association Fights Back

So the NC-NAACP and its coalition partners were ready when the GOP mounted a full-on assault on public education: In 2013 alone, North Carolina deregulated charter school administration, introduced school vouchers into the state budget, terminated most teaching assistants, raised class sizes, reduced funding for schools, ended supplemental teacher pay for graduate education and dismantled due process protection for teachers, called tenure. The new budget provided no teacher raise – remarkable only because it marked a six-year period in which teachers received virtually no raises and only one 1 percent raise to cover new health insurance costs.

Now North Carolina, long near the bottom in teacher pay, is lowest in teacher salary growth. Plus, the state is rapidly approaching the bottom when it comes to per-capita student spending. The cuts were so severe that when the punitive state budget passed almost two weeks ago, school superintendent June Atkinson, who usually stays below the radar of education politics, noted that she was worried about students in North Carolina for the first time in 30 years.

The GOP’s attacks on education have antagonized the state’s major teacher union affiliate, the North Carolina Association of Educators, which assumed a leading role in the Moral Monday protests after the draconian budget passed. President Rodney Ellis spoke at the July 22 rally, where he said he committed disobedience on behalf of the more than 95,000 teachers and 1.5 million students who would be negatively affected by the state budget. He also challenged teachers to play an active role on July 29, the final Raleigh Moral Monday protest of 2013.

Like every other Moral Monday, the final one had a theme: This time it was the future of education in North Carolina. According to organizers, the protest drew an estimated 10,000 participants. Teachers wearing “red for public ed” T-shirts crowded the lawn by the NCGA Building that day, and helped lead the march to Fayetteville Street. The downtown area became a sea of protest signs contesting corporate education “reforms “with messages like, “Say no to vouchers,” “I’m a teacher, not a tester,” “I teach the new voters of 2014,” “Just another public school teacher with a second job” and many others.

Barbara Parramore, 81, began her education career in Raleigh in 1954, serving as a teacher, principal and then NC State professor until her retirement in 1996. Though her career began during Jim Crow, Parramore says the future of education in the state looks bleaker now than at any time she remembers in the past. This is why on May 20, she committed civil disobedience alongside other protesters and suffered arrest (an experience she chronicled for AlterNet).

Harnett County principal Angela Hill and teacher Gary Hill (husband and wife) share Parramore’s dreary assessment. Angela Hill, an educator of 12 years, tells AlterNet that finding and hiring good teachers is becoming more difficult. “Educators in North Carolina never wanted to go to South Carolina before, but now we have teachers and principals who are beginning to look for jobs there.”

Seventeen-year teaching veteran Gary Hill, meanwhile, discusses the inequitable system that vouchers and under-regulated charter schools will create. He also worries that dismantling pay raises for graduate education will diminish incentives for teachers to acquire greater expertise.

Retired Lenoir County public school teacher Lendell Wayne, who taught for 33 and a half years, says the changes “will be disastrous for the students of North Carolina. The very future of our children depends on every person who took time out to come to Moral Monday and take part in this struggle.” She says the policies will benefit an already privileged minority of students while leaving the masses in the dust, and she strongly opposes the use of her tax dollars to fund private school tuition.

North Carolina’s Historic Resistance to For-Profit Education

In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel has made fighting the Chicago Teachers Union—and replacing so-called “failed schools” with charters managed by for-profit companies—a central component of his program for the city. But North Carolina’s education landscape did not look much like that of Chicago in 2010 when the GOP took power. Because of North Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state and its generations-long suppression of labor organizing, the NCAE never had nearly as much leverage in negotiations as the Chicago Teachers Union.

But the story isn’t quite so simple. While North Carolina labor policy has always been backward, the state has served as an example of progressive approaches to education policy in other ways. During the late 1940s, Parramore says, the public became more aware that education opportunities for white and black students should be equalized. So an initiative to build better facilities for black schools meant that some were in better condition than white schools. In 1948, schools began paying equal salaries to white and black teachers, also a forward-thinking initiative for its time.

That the state government never really blocked challenges to Jim Crow made NC an unusual case. Over decades, the state—and especially the cities—developed a culture that was enthusiastic about promoting educational equity and student diversity. This is why many large school systems emerged during the 1970s and 1980s; the urban/suburban mix in places like Wake County allowed educational resources to be distributed equitably across large, diverse school districts.

While the populism that always inflected state education policy never quite helped unions, it did render the state more suspicious of the large-scale corporate reforms further along in other states. Policies that advanced disparity were looked on with disdain among both Democrats and some Republicans. Even former Wake County school board chair Bill Fletcher, a Christian conservative who pushed for abstinence-only education policies in the 1990s, backed Wake’s popular diversity policy. Wake was one of the South’s most successful turnarounds from the days of Jim Crow. Such idealism could be found virtually nowhere else in the U.S., not even in the Northeast’s highly segregated schools.

Before 2010, the state resisted opening its schools to expansive charter proliferation because charters are known to entrench inequality and cause racial segregation in schools. Charters were capped, and Chicago-style “chain store” schools were never a part of the educational landscape. Those charter schools that did get off the ground were usually small parent- and/or teacher-led entities that had very little in common with Chicago charters.

While the right wing in other Southern states has long pushed vouchers—that is, the diversion of public resources into private school tuition—they were never part of the political discussion in NC, not even among state Republicans like former Governor Jim Martin. Even the state’s powerful Christian Right contingent has been slow to pick up the cause as a talking point or major policy initiative. Rather than pushing for vouchers, the movement has traditionally isolated itself in homeschools and private Christian schools.

It took a Tea Party super-majority in both houses of the General Assembly—and a puppet governor in Republican McCrory—to turn this tide. But now that it has turned, Barbara Parramore tells AlterNet, the progressive legacies of North Carolina public education could take generations to restore and the best things about North Carolina education are disappearing. So educators will continue the fight.

What’s Next?

No one denies the seriousness of the problem: This is one of the most severely GOP-gerrymandered states in the U.S. Combined with new voting restrictions, the redrawn voting map will make it difficult to unseat Republicans. Though barely 20 percent of North Carolinians approve of the NCGA’s work thus far, true democratic elections will be difficult at best.

Teachers understand that a long-term battle is needed to stem the tide of Tea Party politics and save public schools. But many are hopeful since, like so many other North Carolinians, they are energized by Barber’s insistence that Tarheels must never again succumb to Old South politics.

Looking ahead, "Mountain Moral Monday" takes place in Asheville on August 5, and after that the movement goes on tour. Over the coming months, it will organize statewide resistance before the next legislative session and resumption of Raleigh protests. Meanwhile, the NC-NAACP and coalition partners have mounted what Rev. William Barber calls the “most aggressive” legal battle against civil rights challenges North Carolinians have seen in 50 years.

I have always said that North Carolina contains the very best and the very worst things about the U.S. The Moral Monday movement shows the state at its gentle—and deeply inclusive—best. If anyone can make a difference, it's these people. “What do we do?” Barber has often asked the crowd. “We fight, we fight, we fight” everyone responds. And given the righteous indignation of the charismatic preacher, people begin to believe they can really win.

Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, GOOD Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, Global Comment and elsewhere online.