CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had just cheered the packed block of red-clad teachers by urging his Republican rivals running North Carolina's legislature to pay more for public school upgrades and teacher salaries.
"What are you prepared to do?" the woman in the red "RESPECT public education" T-shirt shouted into the microphone Wednesday afternoon.
"Whatever it takes!" thousands of educators shouted back.
Now Cooper and legislators who opened their annual work session on Wednesday are waiting to see what happens after an estimated 19,000 people marched through the capital city, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which drew from aerial photos.
Their main demand is that the General Assembly, where Republicans hold majorities large enough to override any Cooper veto of their legislation, stop tax cuts on upper-income households and corporations due in January, and to channel more spending into public education. Legislative leaders have promised an average 6 percent pay raise for educators, which would be the fifth in five years.
Cooper has proposed an average 8 percent teacher pay raise this year, $25 million for textbooks and digital learning and a $150 stipend for teachers who shell out for classroom supplies.
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 that still represents a 9.4 percent slide in real income since 2009 due to inflation, the union said.
"Ultimately, we'd like to see per-pupil spending and salaries for teachers, teaching assistants and support staff all be national average," said Freddie Lewis, a special education teacher at Eastern Guilford High School near Greensboro.
Barbara Faulkner, a South Granville High School English teacher who makes $53,000 per year, said a house she owned went into foreclosure because she had planned her spending around a seniority-based raise plan that was stopped a decade ago.
The 38-year-old said her concerns go beyond teacher pay to basic school needs that go 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."
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. 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.
Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican who represents the coastal Outer Banks, said it's doubtful lawmakers will veer away from merit-based pay raises rather than rewarding all teachers as if they were equally productive. Increasing teacher pay to the national average, another demand of march organizers, isn't much of a priority, 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.
Cooper told protesting teachers voters will decide in November's elections whether to back incumbents or candidates "who truly support public education." Cook said legislators fully understood the politics behind the agitation.
"As far as I can tell, this rally is more about supporting the Democratic Party than it is actually being the huge issue they would have you think it is. Because even they know that we're on the right track and have been helping and will continue to help our teachers," Cook said.
A wave of red moved through North Carolina's capital city Wednesday as tens of thousands of teachers marched to lobby conservative lawmakers for more resources.
The march kicked off Wednesday morning in Raleigh with scores of teachers setting out on foot, many carrying signs and most wearing red T-shirts.
Their chants included "We care! We vote!" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like!"
Educators from around the state took part. The crowd was estimated at around 20,000.
North Carolina's Democratic governor told the thousands of teachers who came to Raleigh demanding higher pay and more education funding that if Republican lawmakers won't support them, they should be voted out of office.
Gov. Roy Cooper promoted his budget proposal, which works toward bringing teacher pay up to the national average in four years by blocking tax cuts that GOP lawmakers already approved for corporations and high wage-earners.
Cooper is working to overturn Republican super-majorities in the state legislature. He said voters have to decide to back incumbents or candidates "who truly support public education."
Republican lawmakers say they're raising teacher pay for the fifth straight year, raising average salaries by thousands of dollars since the Great Recession.
But teachers say that with inflation, they're still making 9 percent less than they did nine years ago.
Ahead of the march, downtown blocks filled with teachers wearing red, and chants could be heard.
At the Legislative Building, where an afternoon rally was scheduled following the march, some teachers had already come inside to lobby their legislators.
Channel 9 was with teachers as they boarded buses at high schools in northeast Charlotte and south Charlotte.
Several local school districts, including CMS, canceled classes because of the protest.
"You want the teachers to have the best education, give your child the best support,” said parent Emily Stone. “They're basically doing child care and educating your child for eight hours a day.”
Sen. Jeff Tarte said he will hold an open house at his office so teachers can come by and speak with him directly.
Channel 9 spoke with teachers from across the Charlotte area who made the trek to Raleigh.
Several of them spoke about the importance of higher salaries but the vast majority talked about the importance of more funding for their classrooms.
Eyewitness News crews also saw a number of students lining the streets to show their support for those teachers marching through the downtown area.
More than three dozen school districts - from the 10 largest to numerous smaller districts in rural areas - that together educate more than two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students have decided to close classrooms that day as a result.
Strikes, walkouts and protest rallies have swept through West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and Oklahoma since February. The resulting pressure led legislators in each state to improve pay, benefits or overall school funding.
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.
"It's just my time to stand up for something," said Jill Patrick, an elementary school art teacher who plans to attend the demonstration. "I stand for better resources for children, which is a big part of why we teach. We love children and feel that's what we're called to do. I think we're just looking for more help."
While low pay makes teaching a struggle, just as frustrating is that teachers spend hundreds of dollars a year out of their own pockets to keep classrooms on track, said Patrick, who's been teaching for four years. Add to that the challenges of trying to focus misbehaving children and adjusting to constantly shifting demands and it adds up to what feels like underappreciated work, she said.
"Some teachers just feel that the time has come. It's been past time, but now is an opportunity to say we're going to stand with other teachers in other states," said Patrick, who teaches in Cumberland County, home to the Army's largest base at Fort Bragg.
Lee Irvin of Cary said he's sympathetic to the teachers' demands, if not their method, which is forcing the software engineer and his wife to work from home on Wednesday. That's because his four boys attend the state's largest school district in and around Raleigh, which has canceled classes for a day.
"I support their cause. I'd give them money to protest. But not during school hours. Don't cancel a day of school," Irvin said. "How am I going to respect teachers who shut down the school for a day?"
Irvin said he thinks his children are receiving a lackluster education. Besides aged computer equipment at school, none of them have brought home a textbook all year, with teachers instead handing out worksheets to glue into their notebooks. Parents like him also are given lists of classroom supplies they're expected to buy, which Irvin considers a hidden tax.
Those complaints highlight why teachers will be demonstrating, the head of North Carolina's largest teacher advocacy group said. 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.
The group demands that legislators increase per-pupil spending to the national average, increase school construction for a growing state, and approve a multiyear pay raise for teachers and school support staff that raises incomes to the national average.
Since they began cutting taxes in 2013, lawmakers have slashed the corporate income-tax rate to one of the lowest in the country and now collect about a half-billion dollars less annually, according to the legislature's fiscal staff. The legislature also phased out the state's estate tax. Sales taxes that reach more people now make up a bigger share of the state budget. Corporate and personal income-tax rates will drop again in January.
Meanwhile, almost all of the additional $2 billion the state is spending this year compared to six years ago has gone into education, including public universities and community colleges. And planned raises for educators this year will make five in a row since state finances rebounded from the shock of a recession a few years ago, legislators said.
The state's most powerful politician said legislators will listen to protesting teachers as they do any constituent. But state Senate leader Phil Berger wouldn't say Tuesday whether increasing teacher pay and per-pupil education spending to the national average was a goal for GOP legislators, who hold veto-proof majorities.
"I think our goal is to continue to make progress in improving the salary scale for teachers. I think we've done that over the past years. I think we will continue to do that," Berger said. "The other thing that we will do is work to make sure that teachers are rewarded for student outcomes."
For teachers who couldn't make it to Raleigh, there was also a rally Wednesday morning in Charlotte.
Crowds gathered around 10 a.m. at First Ward Park in uptown.
The organized demonstrations will be going on for much of the day. Teachers will start assembling for the “Rally for Respect” which begins at 3:30 p.m. before finishing at 4:30 p.m.
Thousands of teachers in North Carolina will march in Raleigh Wednesday to demand better pay, better school safety, more support staff and additional school funding.
North Carolina Republican leaders held a pre-emptive news conference on the eve of the teacher rally in Raleigh and said that teachers have seen consistent pay raises.
"They are walking out of the classroom tomorrow after the largest teacher pay raises in North Carolina history were passed by Republicans," Dallas Woodhouse, with the NCGOP, said.
Republicans said another pay raise averaging 5.6 percent is already written into next year's budget.
Tens of thousands are expected to be in Raleigh Wednesday to demand higher pay.
Republicans leaders argue the rally is nothing more than politics and that it is part of the Democratic Party’s effort to elect Democrats in November’s elections.
North Carolina Association of Educators officials agreed that part of their agenda is accountability at the ballot box but said even with the proposed raises, teacher salaries fall short of where they should be.
Republicans said 57 percent of state expenditures already go to education and their pay hike proposal avoids raising taxes.
Parents at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools meeting Tuesday night gave their support for teachers.
"I hope that something gets accomplished,” mother Carrie Bachofner said. “I hope that they get the pay raises that they deserve."
The March for Students and Rally for Respect coincides with the opening of the North Carolina General Assembly. It is also attracting national attention because of other teacher strikes and walkouts across the country.
The YMCA of Greater Charlotte is offering students in Charlotte a place to go Wednesday.
"Some of them are going on field trips,” Molly Thompson, with the YMCA, said. “Some of them are doing indoor games, outdoor games. Some of them are visiting the pool so it is a taste of day camp right here at the end of the school year."
Parents like Emily Stone support the decision by teachers to rally in Raleigh.
"You want the teachers to have the best education, give your child the best support,” Stone said. “They're basically doing child care and educating your child for eight hours a day. They should be compensated fully."
Several districts across the area have canceled classes on Wednesday.
State Sen. Jeff Tarte said he will hold an open house in his office in Raleigh Wednesday. He wants teachers to stop by and talk to him directly and has this advice for those hoping to make an impact with other lawmakers:
"For those that are coming over to Raleigh on Wednesday, probably helps to get an appointment. If you come in in groups, that's fine. If we get a large group, we'll find a conference room or even go out on the green and meet and talk with teachers."
The opening day of North Carolina's General Assembly session will be marked by thousands of teachers descending on the Legislative Building to lobby for more school funding and higher salaries.
The gavels go down on the House and Senate floor meetings at midday Wednesday. The legislature's chief chore for the next several weeks is to adjust the state government budget.
Lawmakers will be met by public school teachers marching from the headquarters of the North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the "March for Students and Rally for Respect." Their late-afternoon rally is scheduled in front of the Legislative Building.
The rally recently follows teacher protests and even strikes and walkouts in several other states.
Legislative Building visitors are sure to face entrance delays with new metal detectors and scanners.
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