All across North Carolina today, including in my huge school district, teachers have taken personal days to attend a rally at the state legislature. The goal is to advocate for public education in the state—better teacher salaries, more per-pupil spending, smaller class sizes—at the opening of the General Assembly’s annual session. So many teachers, in fact, are going to be in attendance at the rally today that many districts have made the difficult decision to cancel classes for the day. As a result, I could attend the rally today without taking a personal day or writing sub plans. But I am sitting in my classroom instead.
The reason that I am at school instead of wearing red and toting signs in downtown Raleigh with thousands of my colleagues is not so simple. I obviously want to be paid more and I want my students treated with more respect. I also recognize that more educational spending would make my job easier, reducing the number of students crowded into my classroom at a time and allowing me to build stronger connections with each of the complex teenagers whose learning I’m responsible for. However, I also recognize with great frustration that marching on the state capital will not change this problem.
My normally optisimistic nature was forever darkened by the events around North Carolina’s Amendment 1 in 2012. I had lived in the Triangle region of the state—the research-and-university-rich area surrounding Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—since 1998. It’s easy in a pocket of progressive politics like this to believe that the entire state understands what is so clear to so many people whom I bump into daily. When a conservative coalition of “family values” organizations and christian groups proposed an amendment to the state constitution that narrowly defined marriage to exclude LBGT families, every single lawn sign I passed on my way to work every day decried the move and exhorted “No to One”. Polls showed overwhelmingly negative opinions of the amendment in the cities of North Carolina. Yet, on the night of the vote, Amendment 1 passed by a large margin. The rural/red/low-income/less-educated majority of the state had made their voice heard.
I was devastated and shocked. I couldn’t believe that so many North Carolinians could let their personal religious beliefs or fears about the unknown prevent them from seeing that thousands of their neighbors deserved the right to commit to long-term relationships and the legal rights that come with marriage. The entire event left me jaded and cynical about the effectiveness of political activities in such a divided state. Four years later, the 2016 passing of HB2 didn’t surprise me: why wouldn’t the same people want to force trans-sexual citizens to use inappropriate bathrooms? The seed had been planted and I would never again trust in the wisdom of the majority in North Carolina.
Fast-forward to today, and I find myself convinced that it is hopeless to try to persuade the representatives that have been gutting public education (and then bragging about having the fastest rate of teacher pay growth in the country) to spend more money leveling the playing field so that every citizen can have a chance at success and the American Dream. The only change that can make a difference involves changing the representation in the General Assembly. We need fairer election maps (a process that is ongoing right now) and then an election cycle or two to balance the voices in our legislature. Raleigh is the not the place to march as those ears are not pointed in our direction. We need to march on small-town North Carolina and convince the people there of the power and importance of public education. The legislature won’t listen to us right now, but this fall a new legislature will be elected and that is where my hope lies.
Forcing parents to find babysitters and alternatives to school lunch so that we can show our stength downtown is only going to add fuel to the fire that burns in rural North Carolina. We have to vote in the fall and force the political pendulum to swing back a bit before public education in this state will return to the place of respect and admiration that it once had. So, I am sitting at my desk right now writing lesson plans and preparing to head to my second job, not because I don’t care about my colleagues or my students, but because I am saving my energy for the fight to come.