Teachers turn up the heat: Thousands demand better funding
By Brian Wudkwych
The Daily Reflector
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
RALEIGH — Hundreds of teachers from eastern North Carolina joined thousands of their peers from across the state to fill the main street of the state capital on Wednesday, demanding better pay and more funding for public schools from legislators.
City blocks turned red, the color of shirts worn by marchers chanting “We care! We vote!” and “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” They held up signs advocating for their cause, some of which played on memes or popular culture. There was the “I got 99 problems and cuts to funding pretty much caused all of them,” which got some laughs. But others, like “Fair pay now,” took a more stern approach.
The Associated Press reported that an estimated 19,000 people braved occasional rain to join the march, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which based its number in part on aerial photos of the wave of red that worked its way up the cities streets then descended upon the Legislative Building where lawmakers were in session.
“It’s so exciting to see people realizing that their voice matters,” said Lauren Piner, a teacher at South Central High School who helped secure the four charter buses that carried more than 350 Pitt County teachers to the rally early on Wednesday morning. “I think sometimes we get so overwhelmed by being individuals, that we don’t see the power of unity and the strength in numbers.”
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.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper spoke at a rally across the street, promoting his proposal to pay for higher salaries by blocking tax cuts that Republicans decided to give corporations and high-income households next January. GOP leaders have flatly rejected his idea but an incensed crowd sided with Cooper as they chanted his name and pushed through crowds of people to shake his hand.
“We trust you teachers,” Cooper told the crowd in the Bicentennial Plaza. “We need to put our money where our trust is.”
Cooper, who is working to eliminate the GOP’s veto-proof majorities in fall elections, urged teachers to ask lawmakers, “Are you going to support even more tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy, or are you going to support much better teacher pay and investment in our public schools?”
Previous strikes, walkouts and protests in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and Oklahoma led legislators in each state to improve pay, benefits or overall school funding. Wednesday’s march in North Carolina prompted more than three-dozen school districts — Pitt County included — that educate more than two-thirds of the state’s 1.5 million public school students to cancel classes.
But these Republican leaders appear determined not to change course under pressure, and North Carolina educators are not unionized, so they have fewer options for organized protest than teachers in some other states. Some, in fact, had to seek personal days off on Wednesday and pay $50 for a substitute before districts canceled class.
The demands of their main advocacy group, the North Carolina Association of Educators, include raising per-pupil spending and pay for teachers and support staff to the national average, and increasing school construction to match the state’s population growth.
North Carolina teachers earn about $50,000 on average, ranking 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, but that still represents a 9.4 percent slide in real income since 2009 due to inflation, the NEA said.
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, as Cooper has proposed.
And Republican Sen. Bill Cook said he thinks Wednesday’s march was mostly about supporting the Democratic Party in a political season.
Republican legislators have focused on increasing pay based on merit, rather than treating all teachers as if they were equally productive, he said.
“A lot of people want to throw money at a problem, and that’s helpful sometimes,” Cook said. “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.”
Kristin Lundberg, a teacher at Rocky Mount High School, was among the contingent of Nash County teachers on hand for the rally. She has been teaching in the state for 13 years and watched as the state fell behind in teacher pay and per-pupil standing. Being in Raleigh, she said, was important not just for her, but for her students as well — and she wants legislators to listen.
“I think it’s about time,” she said of the demonstration. “I hope it really, truly does make a difference. We just want to find a sort of peaceful solution with this.”
Educators were not the only marchers taking to Raleigh’s streets. A trio of South Central students — Caley Singleton, Christopher McDuffie and Eliza Darrett — traded in their day away from school to march along their teachers.
“It’s not just for the teachers; it’s for the students as well,” Singleton said. “It’s definitely going to be historic.”
And historic it was, as the North Carolina Association of Educators announced that the march was the largest such of its kind.
“It’s hard to put into words what this means,” Alicia Reem, who, along with several other Wintergreen Elementary School teachers, attended the rally, said. “We’ve been in education for a long time and have never seen anything like this.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Brian Wudkwych at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter.