NC Teachers Can Advocate Sans Fear
By Angela Scioli, John deVille, and Teacher X
This article was originally published in 2015.
I was inspired by Governor Hunt’s comment at a recent Public Schools First NC Event. He said, “Teachers need to understand if this [situation] is going to change, teachers are going to have speak up, stand up, take some risks! “
But, if you are a North Carolina teacher, you might also be scared to speak up. I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers around the state who are intimidated by the thought of public advocacy. Let’s review the facts, get past the spin, and bury that bogeyman so we can better advocate for our profession and our students.
Many young teachers (and teachers who have switched districts in recent years) do NOT have due process / tenure rights and they won’t get them back in the foreseeable future unless their local school boards decide to change that. Loss of that security blanket is new, and that can be scary. Teachers without tenure can be fired without cause at the end of any school year. They are basically seasonal employees and that makes them vulnerable to being fired unjustly. This reality should be duly noted and not dismissed.
But most veteran teachers DO have their due process rights, thanks to NCAE’s successful fight to defend those rights in court. The recent ruling that tenure rights, once granted, are a property right and cannot be revoked was one bright spot in the state courts’ ruling record of late.
Existing statutes say teachers cannot use their classrooms to further their own personal political agendas, and they can’t use school time, facilities, resources, or computers to do such work.
That leaves a tremendous amount of space and time for public educators to take full advantage of their First Amendment freedoms.
More significant is some of the less well-publicized wording in the bill, “As an individual, each employee of a local board of education retains all the rights and obligations of citizenship provided in the Constitution and laws of the State of North Carolina and the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.” In other words, you can speak, write, and advocate on your own time and resources like any other citizen can.
Here’s another section: “No member of a local board of education or employee of the local board of education exercising supervisory authority shall make, issue, or enforce any rule or policy the effect of which is to interfere with the right of any employee of the local board of education as an individual to engage in political activity while not on duty or at times during which the employee is not performing services for which the employee receives compensation from the local board.” In other words, you can speak, write, and advocate on your own time and resources like any other citizen can.
Some well-meaning opponents of the bill have led many teachers to think that hyperbolic doomsday scenarios – like teachers being banned from wearing red – are already a matter of agreed upon policy. They are not. In the 1972 James v. Board of Education case, the courts defended teachers’ rights to wear black arm bands in class to protest the Vietnam War. The courts determined that the symbolic speech did not disrupt instruction and was related to teachers’ positions as private citizens, and so wearing the armbands was allowed.
While the earlier case speaks to purely symbolic speech through the use of color, a 2006 Supreme Court case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, paired with an earlier decision in Pickering v. Board of Ed, clarified how verbal or written speech by public employees might be weighed. The Garcetti ruling clearly states that so long as a teacher isn’t acting in his or her official capacity as a public employee, that employee retains his or her First Amendment protections. As long as the teacher is speaking on a matter of public concern (our schools don’t have enough textbooks, our schools are too crowded, etc.), then Pickering protects that speech, so long as the educator is (a) off campus and not using public school equipment and (b) speaking to matters of public concern. In other words, they should avoid making statements that draw upon insider information privy only to employees.
We recognize some administrators, sensitive to public opinion, have directed their staff to not engage in symbolic speech. We believe such prohibitions constitute prior restraint and such speech is indeed permissible. We’re not lawyers, though. Consult yours, NCAE’s or PENC’s…..but let’s not be collectively bullied into the shadows.
With this knowledge, teachers have been taking action in advocacy. We just need a lot more of them. My friend, Social Studies Teacher John deVille from Franklin (in the mountains), another teacher friend in the East (who shall remain nameless – more on that later) and I generated a list of advocacy actions we have taken. We have, collectively:
John and I also recognize our privilege. I live in a large metropolitan area with a school board and county commissioners (for now – the state redrew their districts for 2016) which are squarely in the corner for public education and are supportive of teachers being advocates for public education on their own time and with their own resources. John teaches in the district he grew up in, and while he’s had tough moments, ultimately the community had his back. I am a veteran teacher who has taught at my school for 22 years, while John is starting his 20th year. We have a solid reputations at our schools and in our respective communities; our evaluations have always been good and we aren’t on an “action plan”. We have tenure (John was a plaintiff in the successful NCAE tenure lawsuit). We are both NCAE members and we know they will fight on our behalf because they have in the past. Neither of us are sole income earner in our families.
If you find yourself in a situation similar to ours, look at that list above and consider what more you might be doing to fight this fight. To those who much is given, much is expected.
If you do not find yourself in a position as privileged (like my friend in the East, who does not feel comfortable “going public” in every way, but is an effective activist in every sense of the word), look at the list above and consider what you CAN do. Remember the facts, not the hype. Do a careful accounting of your situation; assess your vulnerabilities politically and personally, and take that into account.
But above all, ACT, to the fullest degree possible.
If we all do what we can, when we can, as long as we can . . . we can be a powerful force in helping to save public education in North Carolina. Replace fear with calculation AND action.
Teacher, Macon County Schools
Teacher, Wake County Public Schools
Teacher, North Carolina Public Schools