By Michelle Burton
Fighting for social justice is in my DNA. I inherited my strong sense of social justice from my grandparents and great-uncle in North Carolina who were very active in the NAACP. They stressed the importance of standing up for people who could not speak up for themselves. I saw them fight tirelessly to end racial discrimination and advocate for voting rights in the south. This is where I acquired my moral compass and the powerful desire to serve others.
That’s why I felt it was my obligation to stand with my fellow teachers on May 16 and let our legislators know that unfair and disrespectful treatment of educators in our state would not be tolerated. The teaching profession is a female-dominated profession, and the low pay, expensive health insurance, and the elimination of master’s degree pay hurt women’s long term financial stability to support their families and have a secure retirement. I felt it was my obligation to speak on behalf of the students I teach so they can have the great public schools that they are worthy of. Cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy on the back of public education has been detrimental to our students these past eight years. Our students are lacking up to date textbooks, technology and basic school supplies such as pencils and paper. Because public schools are educating more students who are living in poverty, the need for support personnel such as school counselors, social workers, and school nurses is in high demand yet school districts do not have the funding to pay for these essential services.
I see this day as small battle in a significant war: The war to save our public schools from privatization. Since 2010, many laws have been enacted by our North Carolina legislators to erode citizens faith in the traditional public school system. One such law that was enacted in 2013 was the A-F performance grades to be placed on schools. This law was purposely designed to easily identify schools with a large number of students living in poverty and the research clearly shows that schools with high populations of low-income students are mostly likely labeled with letter grades of “D” or “F”. This law hurts communities of color especially because a disproportionate number of “D” and “F” schools are in black and brown neighborhoods which further stigmatizes the schools, the students, the families and the teachers.
Our public schools are under attack from wealthy millionaires and billionaires who want to profit off of public schools and they are using politicians to do their bidding under the guise of improving student achievement, particularly for black and brown children. In October, 2017 two elementary schools here in Durham, NC were almost taken over by a private charter management company. Legislators in Raleigh passed the Innovative School District (ISD) law in 2016 under the premise of turning around chronically low performing schools. To push this law through and to make it more palatable, African-American lawmakers were recruited to sign on to the bill. The two schools in Durham that were on the short list for being placed into the ISD have large populations of African-American and Latino students, many of them from low-income families. Both schools had performance letter grades of “F” and had not met their growth targets two years in a row. The Durham Association of Educators, (DAE) saw this plan for what it really was: a money grab and a takeover. DAE quickly organized the various stakeholders in the Durham community to fight the ISD and both schools were removed from the list.
That is why May 16th is so personal for me. I will not sit and watch marginalized communities be taken advantage of. I will not sit and watch educators continue to be disrespected and underpaid. I will not sit and passively watch children not have the education that they truly deserve. I am continuing the work of my ancestors and living the values that they passed on to me. It is my duty to stand for others who are not able to speak for themselves. That is why I march on May 16th.
Michelle Burton is a school library media coordinator in Durham, NC and on the Executive Board of the Durham Association of Educators (DAE)