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Republican teacher marches to a different drummer on matters of public education

Angela Coffman

Angela Coffman is a registered Republican and Southern Baptist.

Her politics and values trend conservative.

But on matters of public education, the Durham elementary school teacher who supports the May 1 teacher protest, falls squarely into the camp one state GOP leader critically described as “far-left teacher strike organizers.”

That description of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) was published on the Facebook page of Sen. Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham) who went on to say the May 1 march and rally is a partisan ploy by the NCAE to elect Democrats.

Berger and Coffman could likely find common ground on many God and country issues.

But not public education.

“We’re talking about the future of our children,” Coffman explained. “I’m not sitting here thinking it’s a Democratic issue or a Republican issues. I’m thinking, why can’t they [state Republicans] understand what is happening to our kids, and how as a state we are failing our children.”

Coffman firmly believes in the NCAE’s work to improve the state’s public schools and working conditions for teachers. She will be among the thousands of teachers marching in Raleigh on May 1 to demand more state funding for public schools.

One week before the protest, 24 of the state’s 115 school districts, including the five largest, decided to close May 1 because they didn’t have enough substitutes to cover classes for teachers who requested the day off.

“I am absolutely in favor of this,” said Coffman, who took part in last year’s march. “I believe teachers are trying to tell lawmakers we need more to teach the children of North Carolina. We’re not getting the funding we need to be the best teachers we can be.”

With that in mind, Coffman is seldom conflicted when she enters the voting booth.

“I didn’t vote for any of the [Republicans currently] in office if education was not important to them or anyone who believes charter schools are the way to go,” Coffman said. “I believe charters schools are taking away from the public schools.”

So why register as a Republican?

“I’m a little more conservative than what I’ve seen from the Democratic Party,” Coffman explained. “The Republican Party speaks to who I am in my morality and what I believe to be right and true, but where I draw the line is on public schools.”

The 27-year veteran teacher and mother of three who works part-time scoring tests four-to-five hours a night points to low teacher pay as one of the issues that is eroding the quality of the state’s public schools.

“I know many people who would love to move to North Carolina or stay in North Carolina to teach but they’re not able to take care of their families because they don’t get paid enough and have to take on second jobs to make ends meet,” Coffman said.

Fed up, she will retire at the end of the school year to join her husband in Florida.

“We as teachers are exhausted,” Coffman said. “We have no more money to put into our classroom. I have no more time to give. We’ve been speaking and speaking and speaking for years and we have not been heard.”

Coffman shared those sentiments in a letter to State Superintendent Mark Johnson, also a Republican, after he urged teachers to pick “one day in June” to protest in Raleigh.

Johnson contends students have already missed too much school due to Hurricane Florence and other weather-related events.

Coffman let Johnson have it with both barrels blazing:

“You, of all people should be supporting us, not asking us to sit back and just take what is thrown at us … You can choose to stand with us and fight for what is right or you can choose to continue belittling us, making us feel we are not worth fighting for,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Berger has vigorously pushed back against educators who claim the Republican-led General Assembly has not supported education in North Carolina.

He readily shares a list of K-12 accomplishments under Republican rule that include, the third-highest teacher pay raise in the country over the last five years, an increase in education spending each of the past eight years and a state graduation rate that has improved by 8.4 percentage points since 2011.

NCAE President Mark Jewell, however, insists GOP-backed legislation has been harmful to public schools and is the catalyst for last year’s teacher march and the one planned for May 1.

“It was the 2013 budget that slashed student funding by giving corporate and millionaire tax breaks, leaving $3 billion dollars on the table every year that should be going to our schools,” Jewell said in a recent statement. “It was the 2013 budget that eliminated 5,000 teaching positions, 3,000 assists, and 300 school support specialists.”

He also noted that under Berger’s leadership, the N.C. Teaching Fellows program was eliminated, textbook funding cut by $77 million, classroom supply funding sliced by $45 million and extra pay for master’s and advanced degrees stripped away, while millions were diverted to private schools through the state voucher programs.

The focus of last year’s march was better pay for teachers. This year, the NCAE has zeroed in on these five demands:

If the five demands aren’t met, Coffman called on teachers to stay out until they are.

“If we go to Raleigh armed with five things that we’re demanding, I hope we’re willing to call out the next day and the next and that we’re willing to stay out until,” Coffman said. “I don’t think anything that we’re asking for is above and beyond what can be done.”