Why Are North Carolina Teachers On Strike? They’re Protesting Even Though It’s Illegal

On Wednesday, North Carolina will become the most recent state to initiate a widespread teacher strike this year. Because it's part of a high-profile wave of protests for improving education in the United States, this event is a big deal whether or not you're from the state, so you're probably wondering why teachers are striking in North Carolina, when it's actually illegal for them to do so.

Like the previous strikes, this one will be very disruptive: It is slated to affect about 1 million students and schools in 39 counties, according to Axios. The first major reason teachers are striking is pay. According to the National Education Association, North Carolina educators make about $49,970 a year on average, making it the 39th worst state in the nation for teacher salary (up from the 41st rank last year). The national average for teacher salaries is $59,660, which means that the state is falling behind by about $10,000.

For inspiration, North Carolina teachers can look to the pay boosts secured by other striking educators this year. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a 20 percent wage increase for teachers earlier this month, while West Virginia won a more modest 5 percent increase in March.

But low salaries aren't teachers' only incentive to join the North Carolina strike. As Justin Parmenter of the North Carolina Teacher Voice Network described to The Washington Post, many educators feel that the state legislature hasn't invested sufficient funding in the schools themselves. Parmenter argues that class sizes are too big and that schools can't hire enough teacher assistants to manage classrooms.

"The North Carolina General Assembly's misguided priorities have made it impossible for our state to invest adequately in our own children's futures," he claims. "And it's time for that to end."

North Carolina's legislature spent $10,259 per pupil in 2017, according to the National Education Association, which ranks the state 41st in the nation. North Carolina schools get 57.7 percent of their income from the state government, which cut its education budget by $2.5 million last year. Rural, small districts are among those that rely most on money from the state, according to ABC11.

"I would really challenge any lawmaker to argue the fact that at this point, after so many cuts over so many years, that they could really make any kind of claim that they're helping public education," Kristin Bellerose, a teacher and board member of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) — which is organizing the protesttold the Public News Service.

"What they've been doing to our public schools is not right," NCAE president Mark Jewell said to ABC11. "We have classrooms in elementary school and fourth-grade that have 35 students or higher in some instances. This is not normal."

Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Unfortunately for those who want to join Wednesday's protest, North Carolina's "right to work" laws don't allow teachers to strike. Many states have laws making teacher strikes illegal, The New York Times reported, including Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, which have all seen recent strikes.

Educators had to find a creative way to bypass this obstacle, so they're all taking personal days instead. With thousands of teachers filing for time off, there aren't enough substitutes to provide coverage. The protest is effectively a strike, then — and it's been condemned as one by critics. Republican state lawmaker Mark Brody called the participating educators "Teacher Union thugs."

Instead of showing up to work, teachers will march on the capital city of Raleigh to press their demands on the General Assembly. According to News Observer, this particular session is one in which lawmakers could alter a two-year budget plan they passed last year.

NCAE's Facebook event for the protest calls it the "March for Students and Rally for Respect" and refers to it as an "advocacy day" instead of a strike. As of this writing, 5,200 people had said that they would attend the event and 6,300 had noted their interest.

"This is not just about teachers," Bellerose said of the protest when speaking to the Public News Service. "This is not just about school staff. This is about our students. This is about their families. This is about what we want for North Carolina."