Our Opinion: Protest politics a poor strategy for school fixes

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The Greek state of Epirus’ clashes with Rome make a fitting history lesson for today, when thousands of North Carolina teachers will march on the General Assembly.

King Pyrrhus’ armies defeated the Romans in back-to-back battles of attrition in 280 and 279 BC. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and the historian Plutarch famously wrote, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

That anecdote lives on as modern metaphor. Merriam-Webster’s defines a Pyrrhic victory as “a victory that is not worth winning because so much is lost to achieve it.”

Such a stalemate is the likeliest scenario following the North Carolina Association of Educators’ Rally for Students and Rally for Respect. Teachers have legitimate concerns and laudable goals, but today’s protest will only alienate the legislative leaders they need as allies to effect positive change.

Long before teacher strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona grabbed headlines, May 16 was designated as the NCAE’s advocacy day. It’s a Tar Heel tradition for many trade groups to invite members to Raleigh at least once a year for meetings with state lawmakers.

These pilgrimages give professional organizations a chance to lobby for their industries’ interests. They’re meant to strengthen the bonds between citizen advocates and their elected representatives. Turning an advocacy day into a protest march may have the opposite effect, driving a wedge between teachers and legislators.

Organizers’ goals include increasing per-pupil spending, enacting a multi-year professional pay plan for all school personnel, adding health and social support resources and issuing a statewide school construction bond to fix or replace crumbling schools.

The NCAE has long been an ally of legislative Democrats and regarded with suspicion by the state’s powerful Republican leaders. In order to have a place at the table as bills are drafted and budgets are passed, the association must strive to present itself as a nonpartisan coalition representing educators of all political stripes.

We think most North Carolinians favor increased investment in public schools. The average Tar Heel knows teachers are underpaid, aging school buildings are in a state of decay, classes are overcrowded and class supplies often come courtesy of educators’ own pocketbooks. We know exceptional Wilson County teachers who are straining under a lack of resources.

They and their students deserve better, but will picketing the very people who can make a difference bring about the change we all want to see?

Serious advocates for school reform would do well to enlist the help of majority party lawmakers like Sen. Rick Horner, R-Nash, who spent 14 years on the Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education. He’s working to increase the amount of N.C. Education Lottery revenue earmarked for school construction. With bipartisan support and the NCAE’s backing, that effort could be supercharged, eliminating the need for state officials to take on debt by issuing construction bonds.

High-profile teacher protests in other states make the Rally for Respect seem like an uprising rather than a clarion call for cooperation. Organizers aren’t effectively communicating the NCAE’s five-prong plan. Most people believe teacher pay is the chief complaint, and Republicans are on the defensive, pointing out that the GOP-led legislature has raised educator salaries each year since 2015 and this year’s proposed budget includes a 6.1 percent pay hike.

Overreactions by conservatives such as state Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, who was swiftly condemned for calling rally organizers “teacher union thugs” in a Facebook post, are only deepening the political divide.

The NCAE may have honorable intentions, but converting its annual advocacy day into a protest rally is a tactical blunder. North Carolina remains a purple state, and education policies need buy-in on both sides of the aisle in order to survive the Republican-led legislature’s bill graveyard and the Democratic governor’s veto stamp.

Support for our public schools, our children and our hardworking teachers transcends the left-right paradigm. We’re tired of the political games. We want solutions, not slogans.

The Rally for Respect will lead afternoon newscasts and fill newspaper pages with ink, but it’s not likely to steer policy. An ordinary advocacy day where teachers sit down with the lawmakers who represent them, shake hands and plead their case would stand a far greater chance of making inroads.

Claiming the moral high ground at the expense of bipartisan consensus may win the day and lose the state budget battle, a Pyrrhic PR victory that won’t fix what’s broken in our schools.