Legislators Gavel In Amid #RedForEd Marchers
The North Carolina General Assembly opened its annual session with thousands of teachers and their allies inside and outside the Legislative Building.
The gavels went down on the House and Senate shortly after noon Wednesday, amid galleries full of teacher support clad in red shirts. Just outside the galleries, hundreds more teachers in the building chanted "Remember, remember, we vote in November." They quieted down after a warning by General Assembly police.
The floor meetings lasted less than an hour. Four women in the Senate gallery were led out by police because they were chanting. One yelled: "Education is a Right: That is why we have to fight." No arrests were made.
North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell was in the House gallery. He said he was thrilled that thousands attended the march, but that work must continue until November elections.
With messages such as "Respect Public Education" on their shirts and signs, as many as 15,000 teachers from around the state participated in the rally.
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.
"We're grossly underfunding our schools," he 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.
Jewell said teachers don't really expect GOP lawmakers to meet all their demands, which is why they are also urging voters to not re-elect them.
"All of this will be fruitless unless we take this energy and passion to the ballot box and change those who are making the policy," Jewell said.
The name of a person identified in a photo caption in this story has been corrected. Her name is Joanie Peterson, not Jeanie Peterson.