RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Thousands of teachers filled the streets of North Carolina's capital Wednesday demanding better pay and more funding for public schools, continuing the trend of educators around the country rising up to pressure lawmakers for change.
City blocks turned red, the color of shirts worn by the marchers, who carried signs and chanted "We care! We vote!" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like!" An estimated 19,000 people joined the march, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which drew from aerial photos.
"I feel the current politicians in charge of the state are anti-public education," Raleigh high school teacher Bill Notarnicola said as he prepared a time-lapse photo of the march. "The funds are not keeping up with the growth. We are seeing cutback, after cutback, after cutback."
Many teachers entered the Legislative Building, continuing to chant as the Republican-controlled legislature held short floor meetings to start its annual work session. Most teachers quieted down when asked, but a woman who yelled, "Education is a Right: That is why we have to fight," was among four escorted from the Senate gallery. No arrests were made.
The state's Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was scheduled to address an afternoon teacher 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.
Wednesday's march in North Carolina prompted three-dozen school districts that educate more than two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students to cancel class.
Rachel Holdridge, a special education teacher at Wilmington's Alderman Elementary School with 22 years' experience, said she drives for Uber to make ends meet. She said lawmakers have let teachers down by failing to equip them properly to do their jobs.
"They keep giving tiny raises and taking so much away from the kids," said Holdridge, who came to the Legislative Building ahead of the march to lobby legislators. While she took a sober view of whether the rally would change policy, she said: "You've got to start somewhere."
The state's main teacher advocacy group, the North Carolina Association of Educators, demands 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 to bring incomes to the national average.
The teachers' group favors a proposal by Cooper to raise salaries by stopping planned tax cuts on corporations and high-income households.
However, state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, have made clear they have no plans to funnel more money to classrooms by postponing January's planned tax cuts.
"We have no intention of raising taxes," Berger said before the march, complaining that "a million kids are not going to be in school (Wednesday) because a political organization wants to have folks come" to the legislature.
Susan Alton Dailey of Durham brought her elementary-school-aged son and daughter to the march, saying she's not concerned they're missing class.
"I really feel like this is a part of their education — standing up and being active in a civic way," she said.
And with the state's finances stabilized after the Great Recession, 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 that still represents a 9.4 percent slide in real income since 2009 due to inflation, the union said.
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."
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed and Jonathan Drew contributed to this report.
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