Can you imagine having your wrists tied behind your back with plastic handcuffs for two hours? Can you imagine being placed in a holding cell with many others and only one public toilet that is flushed every two hours? Can you imagine risking a misdemeanor on your permanent record? Can you imagine being so dedicated to teachers and education support professionals that you would go to jail to bring attention to their plight? Well, put aside your imagination; the reality is that Rodney Ellis, President of the North Carolina affiliate of the National Education Association, did just that.
Rodney Ellis is a leader like so many other professional union/association leaders in America. He must be the voice of teachers and other education employees whom he represents. He does not have the luxury of waiting for someone else to speak up or of closing the door of his classroom and hoping things will get better. He must be front and center and count on those who chose to work in our public schools to have his back.
Rodney started his presidency this year with a legislature and Governor who were angry at his organization for not supporting them politically. That did not deter Rodney. Support for public schools is the legal responsibility of the NC General Assembly and the Governor. Rodney reached out to them to build a cooperative relationship. He spent countless hours meeting with many legislators who needed to vent, and he found ways to compromise to create win-win situations on tough issues like tenure, class size, and funding for teacher assistants. In the end, he and his members were betrayed by the elected officials who had voted for the compromises and pledged their support through handshakes and promises---empty promises and meaningless votes, as it turned out.
The legislative bullies took over. Those officials were more interested in punishing teachers and public schools. They cut a half a billion dollars from education funding, refused to raise teacher pay, even eliminated master’s degree pay, and replaced career status with terminating contracts in the hopes teachers will be silent rather than advocate for their students or themselves. They manipulated the budget process to incorporate policy that had not been fully debated, and they left North Carolina schools in the bottom rankings among indicators that matter.
They left Rodney and his organization no choice but to go to the public with their story. Recently, two major rallies, held on what are known as Moral Mondays, have focused on education. Thousands of Rodney’s members and allies have contacted legislators. Rodney’s Vice-President Mark Jewell and Executive Director Scott Anderson have gone to jail. The vice-president of the largest local affiliate in NC, Paulette Leaven Jones and retired teacher Tonia Pridgen have gone with them. There may be others. The media has focused on the damage done by this legislature, and North Carolina is waking up.
This recalcitrant legislature is counting on short memories, but teachers, parents, and students are likely to have their memories jogged every day once the school year begins. Legislators cannot hide the damage that has been done to North Carolina’s schools. Great teachers will leave for positions in other states that offer them higher pay and more professional respect. Students will have more classmates competing for their teacher’s attention. Private schools without the high standards and accountability of public schools, as well as fly-by-night charters that are looking to make a profit and pay their owners huge salaries, will begin siphoning off public funds. North Carolinians will notice, and those who care about North Carolina’s future as a state of well-educated and creative citizens will hold those legislators accountable.
Teachers and education support professionals must unite to share the costs of a continuing message to the public about what has been done to their schools. Not a day should pass without that message ringing forth. Administrators and parents must support their teachers in ways that they never expected would be needed before this mean-spirited legislative attack. Allies of our public schools, including the business community and philanthropists, must step in to assure students are not the losers from this devastating legislative session. And those friends of public schools must run for public office in Republican primaries and the general election offering voices of moderation and common sense on behalf of public schools.
Rodney Ellis went to jail for 95,000 teachers, 20,000 teacher assistants, and 1.5 million students and their parents. His courage and commitment deserve the support of those affected by the senseless and harsh attacks by the legislature on North Carolina’s public schools. Will you step up to help?
The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.