The North Carolina General Assembly will reconvene in Raleigh on Wednesday for a short session dedicated to hashing out the final state budget. Joining them in the state capitol will be a flood of frustrated public school teachers from across the state, all of them on a mission to force the General Assembly to understand just how the cuts made over the past 10 years have devastated the state’s K-12 system.
Within that unified group there are of course a multitude of varying experiences and problems. Amplifying every single educational issue would make for a sloppy and thin campaign, one that would crumble when opposition—say, a Republican lawmaker claiming the teachers are the cat’s paw of “union thugs,” despite public unions being illegal in the state—appears.
As a result, a strategic selection of voices have been amplified in this debate more so than others—namely, those of the urban school systems. This makes sense—over the past 20 years, the majority of funding has been focused on the areas of the state that are growing the most, and the state’s political kingmakers are no longer the product of rural areas. In a state in which rural counties outnumber urban counties 80-20, this has resulted in a state-wide school system that is unnaturally balanced toward wealthy suburban and urban residents, with folks in the inner cities and the state’s rolling countryside mostly left to fend for themselves, and make do with fewer and fewer tools every year.
As North Carolina’s teachers fight to convince their fellow citizens, a group of educators that have long been vocal but seldom heard has been newly elevated. These are the voices of teachers whose schools are surrounded by tobacco fields and hay bales, and whose needs are every bit as urgent as their counterparts in the cities. Their presence in the movement is very real proof that the state’s ideological rural-urban divide is not quite as stark as the Wall Street Journal would have you believe. When I talked to the teachers back home, they were not content with their General Assembly, with the status of their schools, or with the direction that public education has taken in the state since 2010. They’re in Raleigh because they’re ready to do something about it.
The urban-rural divide might be all anyone can talk about in North Carolina in 2018, if only because of the national compulsion to re-parse the 2016 election. But 20 years ago, when neoliberal policy makers in Bill Clinton’s administration and conservative industrial leaders joined to ship textile mill jobs overseas and squeeze family farmers out of the tobacco business, the ways in which that divide manifested was a very real and very unrealized issue for the state.
In 1994, a group of families from five rural, low-income school districts sued the state of North Carolina for taxing those citizens at an above-average rate but not properly funding their schools. In short, they were paying a lot and their kids were receiving nothing, at least compared to suburban and urban kids. The families called for the state to increase the funding in disadvantaged areas so that the education students received in the state’s rural counties would not leave those children behind.
The Leandro Decision came down in 1997—the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that every child in North Carolina has the constitutional right to an “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” The Court said the state constitution did not mandate equal pay district-by-district, but that funding should be at least a bit more equitable.
But in the 21 years since the court ruled in favor of the state’s rural citizens, those promised opportunities never came. North Carolina’s rural residents were instead left with a piece of paper with a promise on it—that and an economic recession.
While the state progressed on the issue during the early part of the century, the recession and the subsequent flood of Republican lawmakers in 2010's wave election left the state’s rural districts to bleed. Cuts were made to school supplies, construction funds, and teacher salaries. The effects bore out faster than even the most pessimistic forecasters expected. Student reading levels fell off a cliff, teacher retention rates bottomed out, and parents with the financial means to do so flocked to charter and private schools.
Things have not really settled down in the decade since the beginning of the most recent financial crisis, either. According to the 2018 Local School Finance Study by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, the state’s ten richest counties are spending $3,103 per student; the 10 “lowest spending” counties muster just $739 per student.
For the thousands of rural and small-town students that went through high school during the Recession—myself included—this meant recycled textbooks, wobbly chairs and desks, and fewer young, well-trained teachers entering the work force. A 2017 Department of Public Instruction report showed that over 25 percent of the teachers in Halifax County either left their jobs or moved to another district in North Carolina in 2016; at Weldon City, nearly a third of teachers followed suit.
The General Assembly has lately and lazily attempted to delay the regression by throwing a bit of money at teacher salaries, but Republican lawmakers have never been anything but aggressive toward those that criticize their annual budgets—just check out their talking points for Wednesday’s rally.
But this isn’t the rural/urban divide that the Journal is talking about, really. The challenge as it presents itself in North Carolina amounts to convincing parents (who are also taxpayers) in these conservative rural areas to believe and invest in public schools—something that the people working in it have called a broken system for decades.
I was surprised, then, to hear that my home district, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, a relatively safe Republican haven, was among the 42 districts shuttering their doors on Wednesday. The teachers I spoke to—ones that came up in that same school system with me during the Recession years—told me that the passion that drives the teachers in Charlotte or Raleigh isn’t really any different from theirs. The separation is in the problems that are unique to rural teachers, and in the ability of both the state legislature and their own educational representatives to spur any kind of response.
Macie Hudson was a classmate of mine at Carson High School and is currently a special education teacher at neighboring East Rowan High School. She’s two years out from graduating from UNC-Charlotte; already, she’s aware of the limitations that her salary will cause in her life. North Carolina’s teacher pay rate trailed the national average by 16 percent in 2010; it trails the national average by 16 percent still today, per NC Policy Watch. Ask the teachers themselves, and you find that folks like Hudson are more concerned with that funding reaching their classrooms than their bank accounts.
“It’s not even about the teacher pay, it’s about more money per student,” Hudson said. “That’s what people are getting confused with and think we’re just wanting more money. No. But I think our jobs should be treated as a professional job and should be given a professional salary. I’m not saying like a doctor’s salary or anything, but we go to school for four years, we have skills and we have talents that we’ve practiced and learned, and we’re now using them, just like any other job. Just like your electrician—he has talents that I don’t, and vice versa.”
For Hudson, the lack of adequate per-pupil funds means she regularly has to dip into her personal bank account to fund the in-class activities that are state-mandated for CCAC classes (also known as “self-contained classes”) like hers.
“If you go to Carson, they have the perfect setup for CCAC,” Hudson said. “They have a full-blown kitchen, a full-blown physical therapy room—stuff that the kids that are in those classes, legally, have to have. We get what are called IEPs, and every kid in special education has goals.... It can be following a recipe for cooking; it can be learning how to sort laundry. And then you have your academic goals as well.
“But East Rowan—I have a stove in the middle of my classroom. It’s just randomly there. We cook on it, but I have to buy the food. It comes out of our pocket. It’s in their IEPs, to follow cooking instructions, but we have to provide that [food]. I feel, and a lot of people feel, it should come from a different source, not our pockets, but that’s besides the story—the resources that every school has are different.”
Just as the issues at East Rowan aren’t representative of every single school in the state, they also aren’t applicable to every single rural or small-town district in the state.
Brooke Hartsell, another former classmate of mine at Carson, teaches social studies at Davie County High School. Unlike the Rowan County school system, which is geographically massive and contains seven high schools and an Early College program, Davie only has one high school. This means that, for instance, the debate over class size meant much more to Davie than it did Rowan County high schools. Students at Carson regularly had to drive to other schools just to take AP courses, but I never had a class of over 20 kids in my 12 years in the Rowan system; Hartsell tells me she just taught a course at Davie to 32 freshmen.
“People lose sight of the fact that even within a state, the needs of teachers vary so vastly,” she said. “What Charlotte-Meck needs to create change is much different than what Davie County needs to create positive change, and they’re all equally important because we all have to serve the needs of our communities. But how do we meet those needs, I’m not so sure.”
To acknowledge this divide in issues is to acknowledge the divide in resources. The aforementioned statistic about the haves and have-nots in the North Carolina public education realm obviously extend to the students and their futures—I have yet to talk to someone from my hometown that did not at least initially struggle in their first two years in college; for many of us, simply going to college was The Goal. That happens when roughly 85 percent of the town’s adults have high school diplomas and just 10 percent have college degrees. Going in with a particular profession in mind was nice, sure, but rarely was that accompanied by any of the pre-college professional experience that students elsewhere regularly access.
“The money that comes with living in the privileged parts of Charlotte, like South Park, I think the opportunities provided to you when both your parents went to four-year universities or further, the opportunities provided to you when have two parents at home with connections that can get you internships, even before college—I never even heard of someone doing that in China Grove,” Hartsell said. “And then you get to Carolina and meet someone who’s on a full ride because they started a nonprofit in a third-world country when they were 17. It wasn’t just because they had some superior educational experience, but because they have connections in their everyday lives that were very different from my own.”
Both Hudson and Hartsell admit it’s going to be a long climb before teachers in rural districts are granted a fraction of the power held by the major school systems in the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs and downtown areas. The NCAE’s membership skews toward these areas, which means the movement will need to afford the rural teachers a platform if it wants to continue growing in those red districts. Part of that effort will be in partnering with the parents in rural counties, to whom phrases like “teacher rally” might strike the ear harshly.
“We didn’t have air conditioning today. We haven’t had air conditioning since Friday,” Hudson said when we spoke Monday afternoon. “And then people want to complain, ‘Oh, they’re not going to be at school on Wednesday and they’re putting a load on parents and missing a whole day of learning.’ And I’m just in there like, well now we’re missing a day because the air conditioning don’t work, because we can’t afford a new HVAC system.”
If the NCAE or the NCGA fail to listen to their countryside counterparts, the state as a whole can expect more days like today—more kids out of school, more teachers in the capitol. The problems in these areas aren’t being solved, for the crumbling school foundations or the teachers doing their best within those limitations. Those teachers, even in districts long written off as having made up their minds by national and state media alike, are tired of not being truly heard.