Thousands of North Carolina educators mounted a historic demonstration outside the state Capitol Wednesday as lawmakers arrived for the start of a short session. While the halls in many of the state's schools were quiet, the streets of downtown Raleigh thundered with voices of teachers and their supporters.
Educators from around the state arrived by busload beginning around 8 a.m. They gathered at the headquarters of the North Carolina Association of Educators on the southside of downtown Raleigh. They wore red in solidarity of their slogan "red for ed," and carried a wide array of signs expressing their grievances.
Teachers marched with a list of demands that included increased pay and more funding for classroom resources. Kristen Beller teaches kindergarten at Joiner Elementary School in Raleigh. She said North Carolina has plenty of money for education.
"The General Assembly just has to make a decision. Are they the type of people who give those funds to public schools and public school students? Or are they the type of people who continue to give them to corporations?" she said.
It wasn't just teachers marching on Wednesday. They were joined by counselors and support staff who expressed their grievances as well.
Shortly after 10 a.m., the throng of teachers and support staff began marching down Fayetteville Street toward the state legislative building. They were joined by empathetic Democratic lawmakers.
The sea of red descended on the state legislative building ahead of the start of the General Assembly's short session, which began at noon. Crowds swelled outside the building as thousands of people tried to get inside. Those that did get in tried frantically to find their legislators.
Many people said the per pupil spending by the legislature was a bigger issue than their paychecks, but pay still played a factor, especially for veteran teachers. Mark Jenkins has taught in the state for 18 years, including at his current position at Myers Park High School in Charlotte. Starting salaries around $35,000 attract young teachers, he said, but salary caps at $51,000 push experienced teachers to leave.
"And we're really worried about the trend's going to continue that young teachers will come into the state and then we'll have a paucity of experienced teachers in the next 10 years as some of our more experienced teachers retire," Jenkins said.
After the legislative session began, teachers gathered by county across the street from the General Assembly at Halifax Mall.
Democratic lawmakers like Senator Floyd McKissick, who represents Durham, were supportive. "We need to put our money where our mouths are because our kids are our future," he said, to cheers from the crowd.
Democrats argued for more education funding by stopping the corporate tax from dropping lower, as is set to happen. But Republican Representative John Torbett of Gaston County was skeptical. He said he woudl not consider an increase in taxes. "If we increase the economy we get more revenue we can give to teachers and the like," he said.
Diane Gibson is a teacher at North Gaston High School in Gaston County. She was disappointed Torbett wouldn't budget on the tax cuts, but encouraged by his support for better pay and more school funding.
"Well, it is a first step. And he is committed to looking at some things. Of course we'd like him to look more deeply into them. And some things he was not willing to do. But for the most part this is a good first step," she said.
Following the meetings with legislators, the day was capped with a rally at Bicentennial Plaza, where Governor Cooper addressed a welcoming crowd. He touted his budget proposal that includes $112 million in additional education spending to boost teacher pay with an average raise of eight percent.
"So how do we pay for it? We freeze the tax cut for corporations and for people making more than $200,000 a year," he said.
At the end of the day, some teachers remained skeptical they had affected change. Stephen Fells is an American history teacher at James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro.
"You have a lot of teachers out here who are veterans," he said. "They've been in this profession for 10 to 15 years. If we had been seeing the systems and cycles change then those individuals wouldn't have to be here."
But Christine Fry is more hopeful. She teaches English at Southwest Guilford High School and says she's returning to the Capitol every Wednesday for the remainder of the semester. "This will not stop as it didn't stop in Oklahoma, West Virginia or Arizona. It can't stop here," she said.
Many educators say if they can't change education policy, they'll change the lawmakers who write those policies. They say Wednesday's demonstration was just the first step in a march to the November election.