An hour's conversation between Senate leader Phil Berger and 15 Moral Monday protesters didn't bridge the essential gap between them: The protesters want increased spending for public education to trump tax cuts for the wealthy. Berger says those tax cuts aren't negotiable.
But the political theater on both sides was a fascinating lesson for me.
Hundreds gathered in Raleigh for an event touted on social media as #SchooltheNCGA. Based on a little more than a year's experience with such protests, organizers expected a chance to lecture members of the General Assembly without anyone showing up to talk back.
They had their points lined up: Republican leaders are following an ALEC agenda that benefits the wealthy at the expense of public education. The talk of big raises for teachers is merely a Trojan horse, offered in hopes of dividing educator supporters and enticing teachers to give up job protections that allow them to speak up.
The Moral Monday organizers had some zingers ready. The Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP, called on Berger, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory to "stop being political extremists and be good Republicans. I'm not asking them to be Democrats," just "good Lincoln Republicans."
Author and historian Timothy Tyson said Republican leaders want to shift public money to private education through vouchers: "They want the world with a fence around it and they'd like you to pay for the fence." He added that "perhaps the worst indictment of public schools is that a number of the political extremists in the General Assembly attended them."
After more than an hour in the hot sun, the crowd lined up, children in front, and marched toward the Legislative Building.
Some went to Berger's office, where they demanded a meeting and conducted a "teach-in" while they waited. It was understood that if Berger didn't show up and the building closed, they'd be arrested. The Senate convened at 7, and the protesters had packed bag lunches and prepared for a long haul. Anticipating that Berger would shut them out, they chanted "Phil skipped school!"
The call to clear the building came just before 8 p.m. and most of the protesters left. Luckily for me, the Capitol Police let credentialed reporters stay, so I didn't risk landing in jail like my colleague Tim Funk did covering last year's Moral Monday civil disobedience. As police and reporters circled, the police chief made a proposal: Would the protesters leave if Berger talked with them? They agreed, as long as he listened and responded to their specific points.
Soon after Berger came out, had staffers pull six blue couches into a circle in the hallway and asked the assembled educators, college students, clergy and recent graduates to introduce themselves.
The points made won't come as a surprise to anyone who's been following these things. Berger talked about how Republicans have increased spending for public education and made tough trade-offs to get North Carolina out of its dismal teacher pay rankings. Protesters said spending hasn't kept up with enrollment growth, and urged him to scale back on tax cuts to provide enough money for raises and other spending.
Berger said Republicans were elected to roll back taxes and reduce unemployment. "We have done what we told the people we would do when we were elected in 2010."
Berger lamented that 40 percent of third-graders have been promoted without being able to read at grade level, and touted the Read to Achieve act as addressing that. Teachers said it comes with unreasonable testing, which Berger blamed on a botched rollout, rather than the plan itself.
Some of the most heated discussion came when Durham teacher Bryan Proffitt said it sounded like Berger and others blame teachers for students' academic struggles. Berger said that wasn't what he was saying, and when pressed, cited the breakup of families and even the students themselves as contributing factors.
Holly Hardin, another Durham teacher, said many of her students' parents are working multiple jobs, often without health care. "Don't you dare blame our students' families!" she said.
With Sen. Tom Apodaca hovering and grousing that the group had dinner plans at 8:45, Proffitt asked for a few minutes for the teachers to confer and come back with a short list of requests. As they did so, Berger and his staff stepped into their offices.
Before Proffitt could present his group's list, Berger headed them off. He said he had "engaged" with Barber earlier in the spring and prepared an amendment that dealt with all the items on the Moral Monday list, from livable wages and universal health care to collective bargaining for public employees and bringing troops home from Iraq. Berger read a list of 14 Moral Monday agenda points as his staff handed copies to the protesters.
"Are these things you're saying you're accepting?" one teacher asked in astonishment.
No, Berger said. They're things he had the legislative staff draft into an amendment and calculate costs for. He cited a pricetag of $5 billion to $6 billion, and said raising that money through corporate income taxes would require raising it from 6 percent to 50 percent. No legislator of either party would take that on, he said.
Proffitt finally got to introduce his group's "asks": Agree to restore all spending for teacher assistants, provide teacher raises without requiring them to surrender tenure and commit to a public dialogue by the end of this month.
Berger noted that he can't make any promises on what will come out of the House and Senate conference on the budget: "It's not up to me."
"You have a considerable amount of power, Senator," Proffitt replied.
Bottom line: Berger said he'd consider some type of follow-up discussion and asked the Moral Monday representatives for suggestions on ways to pay for the assistants without raising taxes. The group thanked him for talking with them and said they'd leave the building -- but return if there isn't any real progress.
The follow-up began almost immediately. Berger's office sent their documents to the media before 10 p.m., with the cost estimate up to "more than $7 billion."