RALEIGH, N.C. (AP/WNCN) – A red sea of teachers flowed through the streets of downtown Raleigh Wednesday, demanding better pay and school resources.
Thousands of teachers attended, including educators from Pitt, Onslow, Wayne, Nash, Lenoir and Wilson counties.
“This is a profession, and we need to be treated like professionals,” said Rita Joyner, a teacher in Lenoir County.
Wednesday’s rally started at the North Carolina Teacher’s Association Headquarters before heading three blocks north to the state capitol building.
“We work our butts off every day, and kids need respect too,” said Catherine Messer, a teacher with Buncombe County Schools.
Some teachers met one-on-one with their representatives, laying out demands to reach the national average in teacher pay, class size caps and increased per-capita funding for schools.
“Our teachers come in contact with every just about every child in the state,” said Kirsten Bergman, a teacher for Durham County Schools.
Not everyone sees the issues the same way. State Speaker of the House Tim Moore said Tuesday North Carolina has been and will continue to be committed to its education.
“I am personally invested not only as a legislature but also as a parent,” said Moore. “And I am proud of the work that happens every day in the schools across this state.”
The rally was held on the day the Republican-dominated state legislature is beginning its annual session.
“Our students need to see that our democratic voices are being heard today. There is no better example than what we are doing right now for our students and we are here for them.”
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 Wednesday 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.
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.
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 you know, teacher strikes are illegal in North Carolina and in some respect what we’re seeing looks like a work slowdown,” state Senate leader Phil Berger said last week. “I think the people of North Carolina don’t fully support that sort of action.”