For the past two decades, New York City native Esther Davis has dedicated her life to education.
“I’ve always loved teaching, from when I was young,” said Davis, who has taught at Ibraham Elementary School for the past 12 years. “My mother was an educator as well, so the passion was there, and I’ve always wanted to help people.”
Despite her love for the craft, Davis says the North Carolina General Assembly may eventually drive her – and countless others – away from it. The NC Legislature’s latest budget includes a variety of measures that many believe are hurting public schools and teachers, from doing away with career status (tenure) for veteran educators, cost of living raises for all educators and stipends for those who pursue graduate degrees.
“I’m still staying in education right now,” Davis said, “but when the cost of living keeps on going up and you see all these different avenues where you can make so much more money, it’s tempting.”
Davis was one of more than 150 area residents who flocked to Grace Court Park on Aug. 14 to voice their frustrations with the state government’s treatment of teachers and public schools during a rally hosted by Public Schools First NC, Progress NC and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). The rally was the fourth in the groups’ six city “Get Your Facts Straight” tour. Organizers says the events drew 1,000 protestors statewide. The tour concluded with a stop in Greenville on Aug. 16. From Charlotte to Wilmington, Anthony Ross, an intern for Progress NC, said the tenor of the gatherings has been the same.
“It’s just been a lot of involvement, a lot of disappointed teachers and parents,” related the Washington, D.C. native. “It’s just a big issue to everybody. They just don’t want the state to go backwards.”
Katy Carlson, who is entering her second year as an educator, said she supported the rally because she doesn’t know what else to do.
“I feel like we feel so powerless – there’s nothing we can do,” she said of teachers. “So at least we can do this.”
Shouldering the cost of supplies at the start of the year with the knowledge that she can’t expect a cost of living increase in her pay scale or funding for classroom necessities such as replacing the decade old textbooks she is currently using has left her feeling defeated before the school year has even begun, said Carlson, a French teacher at Southeast Middle School.
“I really wanted to be excited for the school year,” she remarked. “…It makes me feel sad that I won’t be able to be as prepared as I’d like to be.”
Carlson’s colleague, second-year teacher Kelly McCraw said she has seen many good teachers retire early, and many of her fellow education majors have returned to school to pursue other careers because of the negative changes that are taking place in the state with respect to public education. McCraw said she had planned on pursuing her master’s degree, but that is no longer a viable option for her.
“There’s no use in furthering my education if I can’t get the credit,” said McCraw, who added that many of her colleagues have had to take second jobs just to make ends meet. “As educators, we encourage education, but we can’t afford it ourselves.”
Former educator Crystal Folger-Hawks of Stokes County went out on maternity leave in February, and had planned to return to work at the start of the 2013-14 school year, but the legislation that has been handed down by the General Assembly in recent months has forced Folger-Hawks, who has a dozen years in the classroom under her belt, to change her mind.
“I have decided to leave education starting this summer,” she told protestors last week. “I decided that it was better to stay home with my child than to continue to lose money by staying in the school system.”
Leaving her career behind was one of the toughest decisions she’s ever had to make, Folger-Hawks said.
“We love the kids, but loving them does not feed our children; it does not pay the bills,” she declared. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that teachers and teachers assistants qualify for government assistance. We don’t want raises. We want the pay steps that were guaranteed to us. It’s not a raise. It’s what we were promised, and we deserve it.”
Gov. Pat McCrory has insisted that the state has increased funding for public education, but his “funny math” only tells half the story, education advocates say.
“Lately, we’ve been hearing that this budget gives more money to public education than ever,” said Ann Petitjean, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators. “What they don’t seem to address is our student population is growing.”
Petitjean, a former first grade teacher, said talk of increasing the state education budget is just one of several misleading statements state legislators are repeatedly making, including the “size doesn’t matter” argument that she says is often attached to conversations about increasing class sizes.
“If you want our children to compete for jobs, they have to have a deep understanding of the subject matter and they need the attention of a teacher,” she said.
Though she often had to correct the wild statements her six year-old students made, gently guiding them to more accurate representations of the truth, Petitjean says she has little tolerance for having to do so with adults.
“My patience is a little thin with our governor and our legislature,” she declared. “When a grown up starts acting like a six year-old, we are in a world of trouble.”
NCAE President Rodney Ellis, a former Winston-Salem resident and teacher, said the organization will continue fighting for public education and the rights of teachers who make it possible.
“First of all, let it be known that NCAE is pursuing legal action against this General Assembly,” he stated. “…we will also question whether or not they’re honoring their constitutional commitment to North Carolina children with this budget that they have passed.”
Ellis urged all those present to make their opinions known in the voting booths.
“Come November, we will remember,” he declared. “We’re going to encourage every … member of the community to go to the polls and express their frustration over this budget. North Carolina deserves better.”
The NCAE is encouraging all teachers, students and community members to wear red to show their support for public education on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 26. For more information about the NCAE, visit www.ncae.org.