Leadership: Accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty—Marshall Ganz.
There is very little certainty for public school educators in North Carolina, or across the county, these days. While one is often worse than the other, political leaders from both major parties have spent the last 20+ years following the lead of wealthy donors committed to the dismantling and privatization of public schools. These Social Darwinists, led by the likes of the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, the Walton family, and others have created a sophisticated network of think tanks, foundations, training institutions, policy machines, mass media, and high power lobbyists to advance their cause.
Over the course of the last decade, they have worked to build their strength through electing school privatizing politicians to the leadership of state legislatures and Governor’s offices across the country. Once in power at the state level, they have systematically dismantled our schools through every means available to them. In North Carolina, that has meant:
- Slashing budgets to decrease per-student spending
- Significantly lower salaries for educators
- Salary schedules that disrespect veteran educators and force them out of the classroom
- Eliminating Master’s degree pay and other professional development opportunities
- Cutting thousands of Instructional Assistants and other essential Educational Support Personnel, dangerously increasing the ratio of young people to adults in so many of our schools
- Eliminating due process protections for teachers, creating a disempowered climate of fear in the profession
- Increased standardized testing and the use of student results to judge (and publicly shame/undermine) schools and teachers
- Some of the lowest principal salaries in the country, made even more insulting by recent policies that tie their pay to test scores of students
- Significantly increased health care costs and the elimination of health care altogether from the retirement benefits of any teacher who enters the profession after 2020
- The rapid proliferation of unaccountable charter schools that have re-segregated and wreaked havoc in school districts across the state
- The creation of a voucher system to transfer public dollars into private hands while further weakening public schools
When called to account for this destruction, they answer with tricks and feigned concern for low-income students and students of color. The public schools must be held accountable for the achievement gap, they say. But they won’t expand Medicaid to 800,000 families at no cost to the state. And they won’t acknowledge the crisis that 20% of the state’s young people living in poverty represents. And they let ICE terrorize our students and split apart their families. They blame public schools, cut taxes for the wealthy, and keep it moving. Meanwhile, the disparities in wealth, health, and rights grow, and our students continue to suffer.
For those of us who have committed our lives to the joy and health and development of thriving young people, it’s been absolutely demoralizing. We’re already doing the hardest job in the world—why are these people making it harder?
Small numbers of educators across the state, through voting together, letter writing, phone calling, lobbying, petitioning, protesting, and even getting arrested, have worked hard to invite our co-workers into action. But in response to this crisis, most public school educators in North Carolina have responded in the following 3 ways:
- Leaving the profession we love dearly and spent our whole lives dreaming about and preparing for
- Succumbing to hopelessness and cynicism and complaining
- Closing our classroom doors, arguing that we can only impact a very small corner of the world
All of these responses make sense. None of them, however, make change. And none of them reflect the leadership skills and creative/collective problem solving that educators exhibit in our schools in myriad other ways every day.
A 4th option, however, is emerging all over the country right now. In response to the uncertainty imposed through the attacks on our schools and communities, our students, their families, and us, massive numbers of public school educators are rising up together and saying loudly—Enough. Basta.
West Virginia. Oklahoma. Kentucky. Arizona. Like North Carolina, all of these states are governed by tax-cutting school privatizers. Also like North Carolina, all of these states have repressive labor laws and relatively weak union infrastructure and activity. Our co-workers in other parts of the country are leading this round, but Tar Heel educators are getting ready to step into the fray.
The North Carolina Association of Educators has called for educators to take a personal day and bring our supporters with us to Raleigh for the opening of the state’s General Assembly on May 16. Like their counterparts across the country, the privatizers that run our state need to know that we will stand up for our students, that we demand respect for each other. The days of being forced out, complaining, and isolating ourselves are over. We are finding each other, we are organizing, and we are going to Raleigh together in big numbers. Our legislators need to see us, and they need to say, publicly, whether they are:
- Committed to the well-being of our state’s young people and those who nurture them
- Committed to ensuring that wealthy people and corporations get to have as much money as possible
Those are really the only options.
Public schools are the number one employer in nearly every county in the state. We have more power than we realize. If we act together, anyone who answers (2) is in serious trouble.
Here in Durham, we’re working to actualize that power. Over the last several years, through our NCAE affiliate, the Durham Association of Educators, we have:
- Helped win raises for Classified Staff who hadn’t had a raise in 7-8 years
- Stopped the deportation of one of our students who had been kidnapped by ICE in his front yard on the way to school
- Staved off the state’s privatization of two of our schools through the Innovative School District
- Supported custodian organizing to win increased wages, health care, and state employee benefits through bringing all services back in-house
- Won funding for our Community Schools initiative, which we plan to pilot at 5 schools in the Fall of 2018
- Pushed the district to compensate teaching staff who perform extra duty during legally protected planning periods or lunches
- Played a leading role in the fight to ensure that class size reductions are not paid for through the elimination of crucial art, PE, and world language classes for elementary school students
Bull City educators aren’t magical. There’s nothing in the water here. We’re committed to leading and organizing and building the strength of our union, and we know it won’t happen quickly.
This week, however, in response to the NCAE’s call for the May 16 Day of Advocacy, DAE leaders got to work in a hurry. In 7 schools (4 Elementary: Club Blvd, E.K. Powe, Eastway, and Southwest; 3 High: Hillside, Jordan, and Riverside), our leaders have either confirmed personal days or commitments to take one from 308 staff members. It took 4 days to get close to, or over, 50% of the staff in 7 buildings. 308 people. We know that many others, in many other buildings, have already made the commitment too. Clearly, educators are fed up.
The suffering of our students and their families is personal for us. So is the despair of our co-workers and the well-being of our own families. We’ve had enough. We’re going to Raleigh to fight for our students. We’re going to Raleigh to demand respect. It’s personal.
Our state can be a safe and healthy place where all of our young people can thrive, but only if we defeat school privatizing bullies. The futures of our state’s young people are on the line; we have a duty to love them and protect them. We have a duty to lead, especially amidst uncertainty.
One thing is for certain: if we don’t demand respect and stand up for our students, things will get worse. Our students, their families, our families, and our co-workers; we’re in this together. There is no purpose more important than the well-being of our community’s young people. Let’s lead. Let’s win. Our students deserve it. So do we.
Put in your personal day. Join us in Raleigh.