North Carolina Teachers Protest, Exposing a Rural-Urban Divide

North Carolina Teachers Protest, Exposing a Rural-Urban Divide

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RALEIGH, N.C.—Thousands of teachers marched on the state Capitol in support of increased school funding on Wednesday, trying to harness momentum from protests in other states to draw attention to deteriorating buildings, fewer counselors and nurses, and salaries that lag the national average.

Teachers from across the state converged on downtown streets here in an intermittent rain, wearing red T-shirts as part of the “RedForEd” movement. They juggled umbrellas and signs with slogans like, “You know it’s bad when librarians are shouting.”

What differs here from protests in other states is that the teachers expect to march for one day, instead of the days-long walkouts in West Virginia, Colorado and Arizona. Protesters filled the General Assembly visitors’ gallery for Wednesday’s opening of the legislative session, but many say they do not expect legislators to raise pay immediately, as happened in other states.

Math teacher Megan Labeau of New Hanover High School in Wilmington, N.C., said she hoped legislators would vote for more education funding in the budget lawmakers came to approve. “But if not,” she said, gesturing around her, “all these teachers are going be showing up in November to replace them.”

Roughly two-thirds of North Carolina’s children were out of school Wednesday. Many big school districts canceled class after there weren’t enough substitutes to step in for teachers who requested the day off.

But the districts that canceled class, affecting nearly one million students, are concentrated in the state’s urban and suburban counties, like where Ms. Labeau teaches in New Hanover. Most of the state’s 100 counties are rural and their school districts stayed open.

That divergence isn’t a coincidence, and reflects the growing divide in the state between the liberal cities that drive the state’s economy and the conservative small towns and rural areas that control state politics.

The Wake County Public School System, the Raleigh-based district that is the state’s largest with 160,000 students, canceled school after more than 2,500 teachers requested the day off. “We are extremely aware that disrupting family routines puts a burden on parents,”

Monika Johnson-Hostler,

chair of the Wake County Board of Education, said in a note to parents. “At the same time, the voices of our teachers need to be heard.”

Southwest of Wake in rural, chicken-and-pig farming Harnett County, school was in session and there was no serious discussion otherwise, spokeswoman

Natalie Ferrell

said. Eighty-nine teachers out of 1,500 requested the day off, she said, and there were more than enough substitutes available for the county’s 21,000 students.

The divide between urban and rural North Carolina is mirrored in the Capitol, where the reaction has split along ideological lines.

The state Democratic Party set its promise to invest in schools as the first plank in its new policy platform. Many urban Democratic legislators posted pictures on social media of the march, saying teachers have their support.

In contrast, the state Republican Party said the protest is wrongheaded and unnecessarily inconveniencing parents and students. The state GOP rented an indoor bounce-house park Wednesday and invited children to play free on the unexpected day off.

Republican House Speaker

Tim Moore

said legislators oppose a return to what he called the high taxes and wasteful spending common when Democrats ran the state a decade ago.

He also said teachers aren’t giving the legislature credit for increasing teacher pay for the past four years, with another increase scheduled for next year. On Twitter, he acknowledged the presence of the many reporters at the legislature on Wednesday, thanking them for traveling to Raleigh to cover “our fifth consecutive teacher pay raise.”

The average teacher salary in North Carolina is an estimated $50,861 this year, compared with a national average of $60,483, according to an April report from the National Education Association. North Carolina ranks 37th in teacher pay, according to the report.

North Carolina is a right-to-work state, and teachers typically must request permission to take a personal day off for this type of action, and be willing to cover the cost of hiring a substitute. The North Carolina Association of Educators, the organizing body, is not technically a union.

Republican Rep. Mark Brody of Union County, in the far suburbs of Charlotte, posted on Facebook that the county’s schools were wrong to cancel classes and thus show students that it’s acceptable to not show up for work. “Let’s call this what it is,” he wrote. “Teacher Union thugs want to control the education process.”

Several teachers at the rally said they were familiar with the “thug” remark, which popped up on some signs.

“We suspect they thought that, given the conditions we work with, but to hear it is hurtful,” said Jenna Moore, a fifth-grade teacher at Johnson Street Global Studies elementary school in High Point, a town 90 miles west of Raleigh.

She said she works a second job as a real-estate agent, so salary is not her concern. She said she attended the march because her kids don’t have enough computers to go around, or even pencils.

“They think we’re here for the wrong reasons, but we’re here for the kids,” Ms. Moore said.

Write to Valerie Bauerlein at valerie.bauerlein@wsj.com



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