A sea of red swept the capitals of North and South Carolina on Wednesday, as thousands of teachers turned out to demand higher pay, more school funding, and other changes to education policy.
The protests, which forced dozens of school districts to close, are the latest in a wave of teacher activism that has been sweeping the country since last year. Teachers in both Carolinas make less than the national average of $61,730—North Carolina teachers make about $54,000 and South Carolina teachers make about $50,400, according to the National Education Association.
For North Carolina, the teachers’ rally and march was round two. Last May, thousands of teachers took to the streets to call for higher pay, forcing about 40 school districts to close.
This year, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, at least 34 school districts, including the state’s five largest, have canceled classes due to the high number of teacher absences. At least 10 charter schools have also closed. The closings will affect 56 percent of students in the state, according to the N&O.
The protest was organized by the N.C. Association of Educators, with support from the grassroots group Red4EdNC. Teachers are asking for a 5 percent raise, extra compensation for advanced degrees, $15 minimum wage for school staff like custodians and bus drivers, more school librarians, counselors, and nurses in schools, and an expansion of Medicaid to improve the health of students and their families.
In an opinion essay for Education Week, North Carolina teacher Justin Parmenter said educators were taking a day off work to protest in order to fight for students’ futures. He pushed back against state lawmakers’ claims that teachers were “abandoning” students.
“We have tried writing, calling, emailing our state legislators to let them know what we need, and little has changed,” Parmenter wrote. “It’s time for us to increase the pressure.”
The evening before the protest, state legislative leaders announced a budget plan that would give teachers a 4.8 percent raise and non-certified support staff like custodians a 1 percent raise. It also restores extra pay to teachers who have advanced degrees, according to the N&O.
South Carolina’s teacher protest was smaller, but still historic. According to The State newspaper, at least seven school districts have closed, and more than 4,000 teachers, students, and other supporters were expected to protest at the statehouse.
“The numbers [of teachers] are unprecedented,” Jon Hale, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Education, told The State. “This is a movement that really needs to be reckoned with.”
Teachers in South Carolina are asking for a 10 percent across-the-board raise, smaller class sizes, uninterrupted planning time, and for the state legislature to reduce the amount of standardized and district-mandated testing. Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering a budget that would raise the state minimum starting salary from $32,000 to $35,000, and would give teachers with fewer than five years experience a 10 percent raise and all other teachers at least a 4 percent raise.
But the top education official in the state has said she does not support the protest. State Superintendent Molly Spearman said in a statement that she instead would serve as a substitute teacher in the classroom of a protesting teacher on Wednesday.
“I am not doing this to help facilitate the walkout, but rather to do all I can to ensure as many students as possible receive the instruction they deserve,” she said. “I support teachers using their voice to advocate for needed change and share in their commitment to ensuring reforms become reality. However, I cannot support teachers walking out on their obligations to South Carolina students, families, and the thousands of hardworking bus drivers, cafeterias, counselors, aides, and custodial staff whose livelihoods depend on our schools being operational.”
Protesting teachers pushed back against Spearman’s statement. “We are doing this FOR our students,” one person identifying herself as a teacher tweeted at her. “We want there to be excellent teachers for our students but there won’t be if things don’t change!”
And the teacher-led grassroots group SCforED, which organized the rally, tweeted that the protest was not a walkout, “it is a day of reflection.” Teachers took personal and sick days to attend the rally, the group said.
Image 1: Teachers travel to a rally in Raleigh, N.C., on May 1. —Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP
Image 2: Thousands of teachers, other school employees, and their supporters marched up Fayetteville Street through downtown Raleigh, N.C., on May 1. —Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP
Image 3: An education advocate holds a sign during a May 1 teacher rally on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, in Columbia, S.C. —Christina Myers/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.