N.C. Bill Could Prevent Teachers From Practicing Civil Disobedience

By Madeline Will — June 30, 2016 3 min read
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A North Carolina bill currently going through the legislature states that teachers who are “at the scene of ... disorderly conduct” could lose or not receive their teaching licenses, prompting outrage among educators.

The main point of the bill is fairly uncontroversial—it would require teachers to have criminal background checks conducted before being hired or having their license renewed. The bill lists crimes like homicide, rape, and prostitution as grounds for teachers not being allowed in the classroom—as well as the sticking point: “riots, civil disorders, and emergencies.”

The bill passed the state Senate unanimously with two abstentions and is currently being deliberated in the state House. If the bill does pass, the state board of education would have the final authority to decide on a case-by-case basis whether previous convictions would make a teacher unfit for licensure, which is renewed every five years.

According to local news outlets, teachers support the bill overall, but are urging the legislature to remove that clause, saying that it could effectively silence them. Over a dozen North Carolina teachers were arrested in mid-June after they sat down with linked arms on a downtown street, blocking a downtown intersection and resisting law enforcement officers’ commands to disperse. They were protesting N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s education policies.

“Dissent is a really healthy part of democracy,” social studies teacher Anca Stefan told N.C. Policy Watch. Stefan was part of the group of protesters who was arrested last month. She said she would continue to protest and engage in acts of civil disobedience, even if the bill becomes law.

“To prioritize my own employment over my students’ needs, it feels wrong,” she said. “As long as I can raise my voice for my kids to defend them against attacks that are cruel, I’ll do it.”

According to N.C. Policy Watch, teacher union representatives believe that the state board of education would make independent decisions on teacher licensure, not tainted by partisan politics—and if the state House amends the bill to give more power to local school boards, which has been discussed, those officials would likely overlook minor offenses that happened during protests. Ultimately, the representatives said, teachers would probably retain their right to protest.

But teachers—and some administrators—in the state are still skeptical about the underlying motives of the bill, and say that it’s important for teachers to be able to stand up for their jobs and their students without fear of consequences.

Teachers engaging in civil disobedience is not uncommon—there are many examples of teachers rallying for more education funding, or less testing, or new contracts, or many other issues. Those protests, like the one in North Carolina, sometimes lead to arrests.

And teacher strikes are also attention-grabbing forms of protest—there were at least 14 strikes in 2015. Most states don’t allow teachers to strike, though sometimes, those teachers will do so anyway—like in Washington, where trial-court rulings suggest it is illegal for teachers to strike but there are no defined penalties.

Sometimes the strikes spur arrests as well—like in Chicago, where three teachers were arrested in April during a union rally. Or in a notable 2001 incident, when four teachers in New Jersey were sent to jail for disobeying a return-to-work order during a strike.

Source: Image by Flickr user peoplesworld, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.