Downtown Raleigh filled Wednesday with thousands of teachers who marched up Fayetteville Street to the state legislature to demand that lawmakers do more to raise teacher pay and education spending in North Carolina.
The “March for Students and Rally for Respect” is the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history. The historic all-day event is resulting in more than one million public school students having the day off because schools couldn’t find enough substitute teachers to keep schools open for classes.
The marchers, almost all wearing red to show support for teachers, chanted slogans such as “This is what democracy looks like” and “What do we do when public education is under attack? We fight back.”
Signs included sayings such as “NC teachers are superheroes” and “I shouldn’t have to marry a sugar daddy to teach in North Carolina.”
Ruth Johnsen, the orchestra teacher at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh, brought a drum with her to rev up the crowd.
“I’m here for respect,” Johnsen said. “Educators need to be respected. It is not an expense, it’s an investment.”
Reid Guthrie of Siler City said that even though he is not a teacher, he stands with them. “It’s important to show my support for the teachers and show the legislature it is not about teachers being greedy or being thugs.”
Kim Andrews, an eighth grade language arts teacher at Community House Middle School in Charlotte, said, “In my entire teaching career I never had the opportunity to do something like this, where there’s power in numbers and our voices have an opportunity to be heard.”
The North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the event, is demanding state legislators raise both teacher pay and per-pupil spending to the national average in the next four years and to freeze corporate tax cuts until that happens. Their platform also calls for a statewide $1.9 billion school construction bond referendum placed on the ballot.
“North Carolina public school educators, parents, and our communities demand better for our students,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said in a statement. “These specific public education priorities will give every student an opportunity to succeed and help recruit and retain educators as we face a critical shortage in our classrooms and school buildings.”
Dahlresma Marks-Evans, a teacher at Lucas Middle School in Durham, was among the early arrivals in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday. Marks-Evans said it is important to show up to advocate for students and teachers.
“I think it’s going to make a difference,” Marks-Evans said. “I’m going to be positive about it, and I’m going to hope for the best.”
Many of the businesses along Fayetteville Street opened their doors to teachers, who made bathroom and food stops. The Sheraton provided free bottled water and snacks for teachers who stopped in.
NCAE is hoping to build momentum over the next six months to elect “pro-education candidates” this fall to weaken Republican control of the General Assembly.
Republican legislative leaders are pointing to how they’ve increased education funding and are planning to give teachers this year an average 6.2 percent raise, the fifth straight year of raises.
At a news conference Tuesday, Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore sad that instead of trying to catch up to the national average, they’ll consider giving bonuses for high performers or for teaching jobs in high-demand subjects. They also want to keep all current tax cuts planned to go into effect.
Republicans have criticized the timing of the protest, which is occurring during school hours on the first day of this year’s legislative session. At least 42 school districts, including the state’s six largest — Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford County, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Cumberland County and Union County — canceled classes for the day.
“The fact that a million kids are not going to be in school tomorrow because a political organization wants to have folks come here to communicate with us or send a message or whatever is probably the front-and-center thing about this,” Berger said at Tuesdsay’s news conference.
Diana Niemann, a science teacher at South Mecklenburg High in Charlotte, said some teachers at the school didn’t come to Raleigh “because they said they have so much work to do today.”
Niemann added that a parent offered to pay for gas money for teachers to make the trip to Raleigh from Charlotte. “She said, ‘you shouldn’t have to pay for this, to go advocate for yourself.'”
The march comes after teacher strikes and walkouts earlier this year in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia led to changes such as pay raises and higher education spending. Like North Carolina, those are right-to-work states with weak or no official teachers unions and Republican majorities in the statehouse.
Conservative groups seized on a letter sent Monday night by NCAE Organize 2020 to event participants saying they “were inspired by the powerful organizing and social justice focus of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and have been working to bring similar energy to North Carolina.” Organize 2020 says the march can be used to build up support for public education and NCAE.
“If May 16 is going to matter, we have to build our union,” Organize 2020 says in the email.
Andrews, the Community House Middle teacher, said educators will be back on the job Thursday.
“No matter what happens today we’re going back to our schools,” she said. “We love our kids.”