By EMERY P. DALESIO, Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Thousands of teachers gathered Wednesday in North Carolina's capital to demand better pay and more resources for public schools in the conservative, tax-cutting state, continuing a nationwide trend of teachers rising up to pressure lawmakers for change.
Wearing red and with messages such as "Respect Public Education" on their shirts and signs, as many as 15,000 teachers from around the state were expected to participate in the march starting at 10:30 a.m. Police were already posted along the route through downtown to the General Assembly, where predominantly Republican lawmakers were beginning their annual session the same day.
Previous strikes, walkouts and protests in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and Oklahoma have led legislators in each state to improve pay, benefits or overall school funding.
Tracy Brumble, a teacher at Milbrook Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh, was with about a dozen fellow teachers at the school waiting for a bus to carry them to the march's starting point. They were all wearing red t-shirts, matching the color of the #RedForEd theme of the day.
"We're here to tell our legislators and our representatives that we need more funds to keep our buildings in good shape, to get more textbooks, more resources for our students, to just have a better environment for public education," she said.
The state's main teacher advocacy group, the North Carolina Association of Educators, demands that legislators increase per-pupil spending to the national average in four years, increase school construction for a growing state, and approve a multiyear pay raise for teachers and school support staff that would raise incomes to the national average.
More than three dozen school districts that together educate more than two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students have decided to close classrooms to allow for the show of strength by the teachers and their advocacy group.
"The fact that a million kids are not going to be in school (Wednesday) because a political organization wants to have folks come there to communicate with us or send a message" should be the day's focus, said state Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican.
The teachers' group favors a proposal by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to raise salaries by stopping planned tax cuts on corporations and high-income households.
Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore made clear they have no plans to funnel more money to classrooms by postponing January's planned tax cuts, including one for what is already one of the country's lowest corporate income taxes.
"We have no intention of raising taxes," Berger said.
But with the Great Recession in the past and the state's financial stability restored, teachers say it's time to catch up on deferred school spending. Teachers are photocopying assignments off the internet or from old workbooks because textbooks haven't been replenished in years, North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell said.
North Carolina teachers earn an average salary of about $50,000, ranking them 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, the NEA said. But the union points out that that still represents a 9.4 percent slide in real income since 2009 due to inflation.
Their demands are also political. The Republican-led legislature should expand Medicaid coverage so students and their families stay healthy, and cancel corporate tax cuts until school spending is increased, Jewell said.
At the Legislative Building, the site of a planned outdoor rally following the march, some teachers had already come inside to lobby their legislators.
Rachel Holdridge, a special education teacher at Wilmington's Alderman Elementary School, said she drives for Uber to make ends meet despite working in education for 22 years. She said lawmakers and state government have let teachers down by failing to equip them properly to do their job.
"They keep giving tiny raises and taking so much away from the kids," said Holdridge, who took a sober view of whether the rally would make a difference in policy. But, she said, "you've got to start somewhere."
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed and Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.