Thousands of teachers filled the main street of North Carolina's capital Wednesday demanding better pay and more funding for public schools, hoping to achieve what other educators around the country accomplished by pressuring lawmakers for change.
City blocks turned red, the color of shirts worn by marchers chanting "We care! We vote!" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like!" An estimated 19,000 people joined the march, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which based its number in part on aerial photos.
"I feel the current politicians in charge of the state are anti-public education," Raleigh high school teacher Bill Notarnicola said as he prepared a time-lapse photo of the march. "The funds are not keeping up with the growth. We are seeing cutback, after cutback, after cutback."
Many teachers entered the Legislative Building, continuing to chant as the Republican-controlled legislature held short floor meetings to start its annual work session. Most teachers quieted down when asked, but a woman who yelled, "Education is a Right: That is why we have to fight," was among four escorted from the Senate gallery. No arrests were made.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper spoke at a rally across the street, promoting his proposal to pay for higher salaries by blocking tax cuts that Republicans decided to give corporations and high-income households next January. GOP leaders have flatly rejected his idea.
Cooper, who is working to eliminate the GOP's veto-proof majorities in fall elections, urged teachers to ask lawmakers, "are you going to support even more tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy, or are you going to support much better teacher pay and investment in our public schools?"
Previous strikes, walkouts and protests in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and Oklahoma led legislators in each state to improve pay, benefits or overall school funding. Wednesday's march in North Carolina prompted more than three-dozen school districts that educate more than two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students to cancel class.
But these Republican leaders appear determined not to change course under pressure, and North Carolina educators aren't unionized, so they have fewer options for organized protest than teachers in some of these other states. Some, in fact, had to seek personal days off Wednesday and pay $50 for a substitute before districts canceled class.
The demands of their main advocacy group, the North Carolina Association of Educators, include raising per-pupil spending and pay for teachers and support staff to the national average, and increasing school construction to match the state's population growth.
North Carolina teachers earn about $50,000 on average, ranking 39th in the country last year, the National Education Association reported last month. Their pay increased by 4.2 percent over the previous year — the second-biggest increase in the country — and was estimated to rise an average 1.8 percent this year, but that still represents a 9.4 percent slide in real income since 2009 due to inflation, the NEA said.
State Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, have made clear they have no plans to funnel more money to classrooms by postponing January's planned tax cuts, as Cooper has proposed.
And Republican Sen. Bill Cook said he thinks Wednesday's march was mostly about supporting the Democratic Party in a political season.
Republican legislators have focused on increasing pay based on merit, rather than treating all teachers as if they were equally productive, he said.
"A lot of people want to throw money at a problem, and that's helpful some times. But you've got to be smart about what you're doing with your money. What we've tried to do is put it into play in such a way that we reward people for doing a good job," Cook said.
But Rachel Holdridge, a special education teacher at Wilmington's Alderman Elementary School, said lawmakers have let teachers down by failing to equip them properly to do their jobs. Despite 22 years' experience, she said she drives for Uber to make ends meet.
"They keep giving tiny raises and taking so much away from the kids," Holdridge said outside the Legislative Building. She takes a sober view of how much the march will accomplish, but said: "You've got to start somewhere."
Barbara Faulkner, a 38-year-old English teacher at South Granville High School who makes $53,000 per year, said her house went into foreclosure because she had planned for a seniority-based raise plan that was stopped a decade ago.
But she's also concerned about basic school needs going unfunded.
"We have a library but no librarian. You can't check out books," she said. "The collection hasn't been updated. The library is for storage and meetings. The books are on the floor."
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed and Jonathan Drew contributed to this report.
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