With less than a week before the first day of school begins, close to 200 local teachers and education advocates argued that state legislators need to be taught a lesson this November after failing students, teachers and public schools with budget cuts adopted this summer.
The Asheville protest is one of six “Get Your Facts Straight!” rallies being held across the Tar Heel State this week. The last rally will be held tomorrow afternoon in Greenville, N.C. Organized by Public Schools First NC, the North Carolina Association of Educators and Progress NC, the rallies aim to hold state lawmakers accountable for cuts to the education budget while also rallying in support of public schools.
Holding an apple-shaped clipboard given to her by members of the PTA years ago when she was a teacher herself, former house representative and current leader of the Buncombe County Democratic Party Patsy Keever told the crowd “You know you can do whatever you want with numbers, and you can say you put in this much more money into the budget.”
She continued, “We are demoralizing our teachers and we are destroying our public schools, and we have got to change that.”
Since legislators adopted and approved its 2013-2015 state budget in July, conflicting calculations about funds allocated for education continue amongst both dissenters and supporters of the $20.6 billion budget. Republicans, including Gov. Pat McCrory, applaud the budget for spending more money on eduction than previous budgets. Critics, on the other hand, say those numbers don’t consider inflation, an increase in student population or a rise in costs — arguing that the budget figures actually result in an overall decrease in education funding.
When Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones took to the podium, she noted work going on with education at the county level, specifically citing the tax bill that will be arriving in Buncombe County residents’ mailboxes sometime next week.
“That modest increase [of 7.9 cents] is investing in our schools being safer, in our teacher supplements, in building new schools all around this county to replace dilapidated schools. We are doubling down,” she said.
However, Jones stressed that local government dollars cannot fund everything needed for local educators to succeed.
“Local government absolutely must invest but let’s be real with the numbers. We can’t make up for the state dollars. The power in the line-item that is available in a state budget, local governments cannot pick that up,” Jones said.
Isaac Jones Elementary kindergarten teacher Tasha Lewis said she knows she and fellow teachers are “going to feel the wrath” of the state budget. However, she points to the resilience of teachers and the community of Buncombe County.
“We are going to continue to go into our classrooms and give our children 150 percent of ourselves,” she said. “We will reach out to our community, reach out to our parents, reach into our own pockets and do what we need to do to make sure all the children are getting the best education, the best public education, that they can possibly get.”
In May, another education rally was held in Pack Square Park warning of the ramifications of then-pending education legislation. At that event, a group of more than 50 people — including education advocates, teachers and community members — criticized then-pending state legislation that they said could jeopardize the future of educators and North Carolinians of all ages. Keever, who spoke at that event, said, “This [legislative] majority views classrooms as factories, teachers as shop foremen and students as low-wage earners whose job is to produce a quantity of test scores. It aims to suck quality and passion out of the classroom.”
Today, she says things have gotten even worse with the General Assembly’s budget, particularly with its prioritization of education funding.
“It’s just devastating what’s happening,” Keever said. “I would ask that our legislators listen to us and understand and review the situation. They may be told one thing in Raleigh about what’s good, but we are living in a place where education is extremely important — it’s important all across the state — and I would hope they would rethink their votes on education.”
For Pisgah Elementary School teacher Jan Caldwell, Thursday’s rally was the first time she has ever participated in a protest of any kind. She wore red in solidarity with her fellow public school teachers and made a cardboard sign with a photo of one of her classes stuck to it. Beneath the photo, the words “I am focused on students!” was sprawled in black, bold marker. But the second- and third-grade teacher has something else she wants to tell the General Assembly.
“I welcome any legislator to visit [my classroom] and really see what it’s like. I think too many of them have not been in the classroom [recently],”said Caldwell, who has worked as a public school teacher in North Carolina for 36 years. “I want people to know that our public schools are strong and we open the doors to everyone. We meet the needs of all, and that’s our goal. Public schools are the foundation of our democracy.”
— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at email@example.com or 251-1333, ext. 140.