Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter faces his breaking point in the fight for better NC schools

Charlotte teacher and writer Justin Parmenter is beloved for his passionate support of public education. Not even a major health scare can stop him. (Photo via Justin Parmenter)

By Billy Ball

February 15, 2024

You might not know him, but your kid’s teacher does. Here’s how a public education champion survived a decade of Republican budget cuts and a major health scare.

[Editor’s Note: Justin Parmenter, the subject of this story, is an occasional contributor to Cardinal & Pine.]

The first time Justin Parmenter had a stroke, he’d just completed his leg of the Charlotte marathon.

Parmenter—teacher, public education activist, and creator of the popular blog “Notes From a Chalkboard”—ran it as a relay with several coworkers in November 2023. His stretch began with the starting line in uptown Charlotte. A friend shared a photo of him taking off: Bank of America’s corporate headquarters towering behind, the sky a robin’s egg blue.  

The stroke came afterward, as he drove his teammates to their starting points around the city. 

“I rolled through a red light with three cop cars sitting at it,” Parmenter says. “I could see and hear and I could think of words I wanted to say but I couldn’t make them come out of my mouth.”

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The second time he had a stroke, about a month after the first, Parmenter was watching a tv show and trying to log into a phone app, but couldn’t remember his birthday. He couldn’t form words, or understand what the people on the TV were talking about. 

Doctors blamed a small hole in his heart. But heart procedure money isn’t teacher money, so another educator started a GoFundMe, raising more than $27,000 in a few days. 

A note from one of NC teacher Justin Parmenter’s students, wishing him good luck on an upcoming heart procedure. (Photo via Justin Parmenter)

“Notes from a Chalkboard”

Strokes, depending on their severity, can kill you or leave you with long-term disabilities. The fear of death can either paralyze or focus you. It’s obvious what it does to Parmenter. 

Fourteen days after his first stroke, he was writing on his blog about Mark Robinson, the Republican frontrunner for governor of North Carolina. If Robinson wins, he might be the most anti-public schools governor in America. Parmenter—a K-8 teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools—doesn’t want that to happen.

“The idea of just not talking about it is not an option,” he told me. We met in January, just a few days before his heart procedure. He wore a bright red t-shirt—a sort of uniform for public education activists. I think they wake up like this.

“At this point, I’ve gotten to where I feel like what we’re going through in public schools in North Carolina—it needs to be told again.”

You might not have heard of Parmenter or his blog, but your kid’s teacher has. 

Sometimes, he writes his opinion. Other times, he reports. Occasionally he scoops professional reporters, like when he uncovered potential ethics violations within NC’s top public education agency. It helps, he says, being a teacher because other educators trust him with tips. 

Trust is in short supply with teachers. About 140 miles away in Durham Public Schools, school staffers—bus mechanics, drivers, cafeteria workers, instructional assistants—aren’t coming in some days because they’ve been underpaid by the state for years. And the raises they were given by Durham school leaders in 2023 are now being reneged on. In solidarity, classroom teachers started calling in sick. So Durham’s public schools have closed for multiple days for an unthinkable reason—not because of bad weather or a teacher workday, but because there’s not enough people to run them. 

Is this what it looks like when a starved public school system eats itself? 

@cardinalandpine

🍎 Don’t think of the Durham schools crisis as just a Durham problem. In the latest “Billy Ball Explains NC,” our senior editor breaks down how a stingy state legislature has made life very hard for public education. For more education news, follow @cardinalandpine. 🎥 Billy Ball/Dylan Courbat for Cardinal & Pine #nced #ncpol #ncpublicschools #ncdemocrats #educationpolicy #publicshools #elementaryschool #teachersofig #durhamnnc #ncteachers

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Parmenter said we’ve reached the “endgame” for Republicans’ anti-public schools agenda. 

Outside, it was raining so hard, we had to lean in to hear each other speak. In the kitchen, his wife, Arzu, worked on a traditional Turkish dinner. The pots and pans clanged. 

Our phones buzzed with a weather alert. There was a tornado warning and a flash flood warning. “We should seek higher ground,” Parmenter said.  

A Sea of Red

Every few years, North Carolina teachers and their supporters flood Raleigh streets in their red shirts to protest the Republican state lawmakers who are siphoning public education money into privatized school choice programs. 

The protests make for striking photos. But NC’s legislators, safely gerrymandered into a Republican majority, don’t seem bothered by them. 

NC has the most board certified-educators in the nation, and—perversely—some of the most poorly paid too. Classroom funding ranks near the bottom. A nonpartisan report in 2023 ranked NC last in the nation for school funding “effort,” which means that, based on its relative wealth, the state tried the least hard. 

Since they seized the majority in the legislature in 2010, NC Republicans have been inexorably making NC into a paradise for privatized education while underfunding public schools, which is where most NC kids (especially the poor and rural ones) go. 

A cut here. A cut there. It’s like the legislature is the enthusiastic kid in biology class dissecting a cat. 

In this May 2018 file photo, lawmakers and legislative employees watch the crowd grow outside of the North Carolina Legislative Building as educators gathered to protest education funding shortfalls. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

Last year, they uncapped the state’s taxpayer-funded private school voucher program, allowing any applicants—regardless of how much money they make—to qualify for public aid for private tuition. That means the state will be paying wealthy people to send their kids to private schools. And some public school systems don’t have the cash for basic things like paper, pens, or a new paint job.

Parmenter—who teaches in Charlotte at South Academy of International Languages, a local magnet school—has been feverishly documenting the upheaval in NC schools from an educator’s point of view for about a decade. 

He began his career in the late 90s, teaching overseas with the Peace Corp. He worked in Albania and Turkey, which is where he met his wife. Those countries have their problems, but they treated educators like a profession to aspire to, he says. Coming back to teach in America was a shock.

“I was kind of used to being celebrated as an educator and having the red carpet treatment.” 

He taught on an Apache reservation on the border of New Mexico and Arizona. Most people were poor. Substance abuse was a problem. Kids sniffed glue in class. 

He reached kids a different way, starting a Saturday fishing club. Every week, he’d pack a dozen or so ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches and pick up his students in an activity bus. Then they’d fish for trout on the nearby White River. 

A couple years ago, one of those students tracked him down. The kid’s an EMT now. “Every once in a while, you get a shot from that,” Parmenter says. “You don’t expect that. You get to hear about what your impact was and it’s not always in the way that you thought it would be, but it’s still an impact.”

Like many educators, Parmenter thinks about teaching like a passion project. But that doesn’t mean he’ll do it for nothing. In 2002, he was lured to teach in NC by what was, at the time, decent pay. NC had the mountains, the trails, and the beaches too. He stayed out of politics.

“I couldn’t have told you who my state senator was or anything about any new laws or policies,” he says. “It was just: Go in my classroom and teach the students the best I could. And it seemed like my check was covering rent and food pretty well, so I didn’t have too much to complain about.” 

Things changed in 2010, when Republicans, for the first time in a century, took both chambers of the NC legislature. GOP tax cuts started costing the state billions in revenue. Education suffered the most when they balanced the budget. They began scaling privatized education up and public education down.

After big K-12 funding cuts in 2013, Parmenter started writing op-eds, first for The Charlotte Observer and then, when he grew too prolific, for his blog. 

There’s been some backlash. Some conservatives want him to be fired, although he says he maintains a strict line between when he’s teaching in the classroom and advocating. Once, a school board member in Charlotte accused him of politicizing on campus because he shared a photo on social media of his school’s spirit rock. 

He frequently criticizes Mark Robinson’s race for governor. And Catherine Truitt, the Republican who heads NC’s top public school agency, is, he wrote recently, “pounding metaphorical coffin nails” into traditional public education by promoting school choice.

Parmenter reserves his strongest barbs for Phil Berger, the influential state Senate leader whose budgets have been especially tough on public school cuts. 

Parmenter’s had a lot to write about.

Are the days of silent suffering over?

Today, educator pay in NC is mediocre or bad in most counties, depending on how much your local government can chip in to fill in state shortfalls. That’s hard to do in rural NC, which is most of NC.

If you reach 15 years of teaching experience, the state salary schedule guarantees a decade without a raise from the state.

“I think a lot of people without regard to party affiliation know that if we’re paying educators $35,000 at the beginning of their career, we’re not going to have great educators and we’re not going to have people that want to stay in the classroom,” Parmenter says. In North Carolina, the livable wage for a family of four is $96,512.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Republican and Democratic judges agree that rural NC schools have been underfunded by the state for generations. Through the ongoing Leandro case, courts have found that the state of North Carolina owes public schools hundreds of millions of dollars to provide a “sound, basic education.” The legislature hardly argues the point. What they say, however, is that courts can’t tell them what to give, or what not to give, to schools. 

Until now, most people seemed content to live with educators’ pain. Schools have still been operating, even if every summer is a scramble to find teachers, teaching assistants, guidance counselors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and other essential positions. 

The days of “silent suffering” might be coming to an end though. Durham might be the only place in NC where educators are walking out right now, but it’s not the only place where they’re fed up. Educator pay and classroom funding is worse in rural counties. When will they stop coming in too? 

@cardinalandpine

WATCH: Durham Public School workers picketed Wednesday outside the school system’s central office, demanding that the school system deliver on the raises they promised staff members in 2023. Durham schools have been in upheaval since the school system told staffers that they had been erroneously given raises last year. At one point, the system said it was going to take money back from workers who had been overpaid. Many of those workers—classified staff like instructional assistants, mechanics, and cafeteria workers—live paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t pay the money back. The school system backed off on their plan to have workers return the money in January, but those workers are still losing their 2023 raises. Teachers joined those staff members to protest Wednesday. Twelve schools closed because of the number of educators who were calling out to demonstrate. The turmoil comes at a difficult moment for many public school educators, who are angry about the chronically low pay and mediocre funding delivered by NC’s state legislature. The legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, is investing instead in privatized school choice options like charter schools and private schools. For more info on the state of public education in NC, check out our report at the 🔗 in our bio. For more NC education news, follow @cardinalandpine. 🎥 Billy Ball for Cardinal & Pine #nced #ncpol #ncpublicschools #ncdemocrats #educationpolicy #publicshools #elementaryschool #teachersofig #durhamnnc #ncteachers

♬ original sound – Cardinal & Pine

“It just seems like the pace of spiraling keeps picking up,” says Parmenter. “And just looking back over all those years and all of the things that have happened, the budgets being written in the dark and all the awful policies, the education policies that have de-professionalized what educators do in North Carolina and harm students, it’s really hard.”

“I mean, I look at my students in the classroom and think about what their needs are, and what they’re getting and what they’re not getting, and how that is going to determine their trajectory in life. And that doesn’t feel melodramatic to me. That feels like just straight facts.”

“Everyone has a breaking point”

Parmenter at a 2018 demonstration in Charlotte. (Photo via Justin Parmenter)

When Justin Parmenter wakes up from his heart procedure, he learns that doctors think they were wrong—if there is a hole in his heart, it’s not big enough to be giving him strokes. Sometimes life leaves you without closure. So he’ll take the pills every day and wear a heart monitor.

I ask about the teachers walking out in Durham. During a protest that week, they’d circled the school system’s central office for hours. You could argue they were picketing outside the wrong building. The NC General Assembly is in downtown Raleigh, not here in Durham. 

“All signs point to this getting worse and worse and worse until we have a huge shift in philosophy and start caring about public education,” he says. 

“When it comes down to your kids standing around and it’s 25 degrees outside and there’s no bus coming to pick them up because bus drivers aren’t getting paid, families are going to feel that. I don’t think there’s any question that’s where we’re headed.”

“Everyone has a breaking point,” he says.

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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