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Opinion Reactionary legislature punishes teachers

Teachers punished for defending public education

At 1:12am this past Thursday morning, the North Carolina General Assembly under the leadership of Speaker Thom Tillis made what may well be an unprecedented power move in the Old North State. I’ll let veteran Raleigh News & Observer political reporter Rob Christiansen tell it:

“I’ve watched every North Carolina legislature since 1977 and have seen some powerful political mandarins work their will, including Democrats Jimmy Green, Liston Ramsey, Jim Black and Marc Basnight.”

“But I’ve never seen anything quite like last week’s hijinks, in which legislators voted to end the dues check off, making it harder for the NCAE [North Carolina Association of Educators] to collect dues from members.”

Governor Perdue had called the General Assembly back into session to allow the legislature the opportunity to override her veto of their re-write of the Racial Justice Act, a courtesy she was bound by law to extend. But when the legislators could not find the votes to override her veto of that bill, rather than adjourning the special session, they passed a resolution which they argue constitutionally allowed them to extend the session to consider other matters. Even hours before the vote, no Republican representative would go on the record as to what the plan was for the moonlight madness.

And so without any public notice, the organization whose membership comprises approximately one-third of this state’s public school teachers and who provides the strongest consistent voice for all teachers whether they are members or not, the organization which consistently lobbies for policies to best serve the K-12 children of this state whose families do not have the financial wherewithal to send them to private schools, was the recipient of what was intended to be a crippling blow by a single-vote margin.

There is no mistaking the motive in the vote, nor the creation of the bill itself, co-sponsored by the 50th district’s Senator Jim Davis. Five Democratic lawmakers made a decision last spring to join the GOP to override the Governor’s veto of the state budget which both the Governor and NCAE as evaluated deeply harmful to North Carolina’s public school children. NCAE sent mailers into those five representatives’ districts with specific criticisms of their actions and the budget they supported.

In the wake of the mailings, Speaker Tillis huddled with his troops in the legislature, hammering not a mere response but a method to attempt to once and for all, muzzle the collective NCAE voice. Speaker Tillis revealed the plan to eliminate seamless collection of dues by the various central offices across the state, the thinking being, make it harder for us to collect our dues, we’ll have fewer members, fewer dollars, more internal headaches, and thus a weaker voice in the public education debate.

We know this because an open microphone caught Speaker Tillis’s comments last June when the groundwork was being laid for the Thursday morning ambush: “The reason we’ve decided to do that is the NCAE has gone into all five districts with mailers hammering these Democrats…we just want to give them a little taste about what’s to come.” Once busted, the Speaker had no qualms speaking the truth Thursday morning about the vote, “Politics” was a factor, but there were several factors,” said Tillis.

NCAE went to court last Monday to seek a temporary restraining order, contesting both the constitutionality of the vote and the content of the bill itself, since other teachers who are members of other organizations such as the State Employees Association of NC can still have their dues deducted from their paychecks. In the meantime, we will be communicating work-arounds such as electronic funds transfers to our members. Headaches, yes; diminished voices, no.

This wasn’t the current legislature’s first attempt to cripple NCAE. Last spring they were successful in passing free liability insurance for all NC teachers and staff. That’s right — in the middle of a recession, NC lawmakers took scarce dollars to provide a benefit, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but in an attempt to make an NCAE benefit superfluous and, again, weaken our numbers and diminish our voice.

Why the discrimination, why was NCAE singled out with this new law? Speaker Tillis and his brethren claim we are a partisan organization. That argument seems difficult to square with his previous complaint that we went after five Democrats who crossed over to vote with his caucus.

It is also difficult to square with the fact that in 2008 NCAE’s political action committee gave money to the Republican House Majority Committee and the Committee to Elect Republican Women. A partial list of other NC Republicans we gave money to in 2008 includes: Dale Folwell, Robert Grady, Fletcher Hartsell, Jerry Tillman, Larry Brown, Kenny Furr, Laura Wiley, Karen Ray, Larry Hale, Shirley Blackburn Randleman, Harry Brown, Bonner Stiller, Mitchell Setzer, Sidney M, Sandy, Jean Preston, Pat B. Hurley, Linda P Johnson, and Richard Stevens. In short, NCAE gives money to candidates who demonstrate promise in supporting public education.

Make no mistake: Speaker Tillis and NC Senate Leader Phil Berger are leading what is perhaps the most reactionary legislature in NC’s history, hence the near-record number of vetoes which has Tillis and Berger aflutter. They have exceeded the traditional rules of the political game. They have clearly deserted the time-honored Republican principle of “small government.” Small government would have, at the very least, left the collection of NCAE dues as a local matter, not forbidden it outright as they did. But what’s a principle worth when the opportunity beckons to silence dissent? Not much, it appears.

Both sides sadly engage in gerrymandering districts for partisan advantage and that issue is in the NC courts as I write. But the elimination of the dues check off and monomaniacal push for NC’s Voter ID bill which currently stands vetoed, chart new waters. The obvious goal of the Voter ID bill is to silence dissent by reducing the voter turnout of the poor, the elderly, college students, and people of color — the demographics for whom the bill’s hurdles will serve as a latter-day poll tax and literacy test.

Speaker Tillis and Senator Berger have taken their cues from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which serves to write much of their legislation and other reactionary legislatures which were swept into office in 2010 (SEE WISCONSIN, OHIO, MICHIGAN). The legislative language to eliminate the dues check off and the Voter ID bill aren’t indigenous to North Carolina — their birthplace is ALEC. (You can read all the model legislation at alecexposed.org). The mission is plain: diminish as much as possible any advocacy and political support, including votes, for traditional public services and their employees, then wash over what remains with the unlimited and anonymous corporate dollars undammed by the Citizens United decision.

I see on Speaker Tillis’s Facebook site that he made the decision to cancel his Charlotte Observer subscription after they criticized his late-night move. He’s going to want to avoid using Google either.

A quick search of North Carolina’s traditionally conservative editorial pages reveal consistent condemnation of the maneuver, if not the content of the bill itself as well. Moderates, who find such reactionary moves distasteful, are rebooting their traditional support of public education in North Carolina, and have offered the NCAE family tremendous comfort these past few days. The Speaker may put his fingers in his ears, cancel all his subscriptions, lay hazards in our midst, and unplug his computer, but our voices will still be heard.

And with that I’ll let Speaker Tillis have the last word: “Everybody knows that any time we come into a general session, that those matters are on the calendar and that this should be a learning experience.”

Indeed.

John deVille was named Macon County Teacher of the Year in 2006. He is a history and philosophy teacher at Franklin High School and current vice-president of the Macon County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators.





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