Thousands of educators from across North Carolina gathered Wednesday at the state capitol in Raleigh to join the March for Students and Rally for Respect. Their message about the need for better pay and increased school funding was loud and clear. The response from Republican legislative leaders was a promise of more raises - but also a campaign to correct what they call misinformation about their efforts.
The educators and their supporters focused on the shortcomings of North Carolina's public education system - funding cuts dating back a decade, below average teacher pay, and too little money for buildings, supplies and school staff like counselors, nurses and social workers.
Mark Jewell is a teacher in Guilford County and president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the rally.
“I moved here from West Virginia 20 years ago. I came to North Carolina because North Carolina was a teacher destination state. We were the leading beacon flame in the South. We were at the national average in educator pay,” Jewell said.
But it's starkly different today, said Jewell. North Carolina teacher pay ranks 37th nationally at about $51,000. Per-pupil spending is also below the national average, according to the National Education Association. And lawmakers have eliminated extra pay for advanced degrees.
Republican lawmakers have pushed back. They're talking up pay increases they passed in recent years, proposed another raise next year, and even put up their own website - ncteacherraise.com. State Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius said they're trying to correct "misinformation floating around" about what the Republican-led General Assembly is doing.
“Since I've been in the Senate for the last six years we've raised teacher pay every year,” Tarte said in an interview. “And the big announcement today is re-affirming and confirming that we will see over 6 percent pay increase next year on average for all teachers in the state of North Carolina.”
Tarte's words echoed statements this week from Republican leaders like House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger. They blame the state's troubles on Democrats and call the rally organizers, the North Carolina Education Association, a union - which the group says it's not, and notes doesn't even have collective bargaining rights.
Union wouldn't necessarily be a bad word for many in Wednesday's crowd. They were in Raleigh to find strength in numbers.
“Considering what's happened in other states with teachers and what they've done, it's probably a starting point," said Jim Becht, an elementary school teacher in Union County. "You know we've kind of showed the legislature our strength today. And let's see what they do with it. And November's coming,” Becht said.
He was one of many on stage and in the crowd to warn legislators about a "teacher vote" in this fall's elections.
Jennifer Tyler, who teaches at Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte, said it all comes down to money - and not just for pay. She says teachers are asked to teach 21st century skills, but without a 21st century budget.
“The conditions that are our kids are sitting in and Charlotte Mecklenburg schools is not acceptable. And we are working to get money to be able to correct that and be able to do our jobs appropriately to help our future growth,” she said.
The rally's main speaker was Governor Roy Cooper, who came to promote his proposed budget - which may not get too far in the Republican controlled General Assembly.
Cooper said it raises teacher pay an average of 8 percent, including raises for veteran teachers at the top pay step. And he has an idea where to get it - by canceling a planned tax cut for corporations and people making more than $200,000 a year.
“They are scheduled to get yet another one next year—about $110 million worth. I say let’s use that $110 million instead to raise teacher pay,” Cooper said, drawing a big cheer.
For many who made the trip to Raleigh, it wasn't just about money. There was another goal - respect.
“I've seen so many posts on social media about how lazy we are and how we're just takers and we want a raise, we don't care about the kids. And I'm like … No, this is for your kids,” said teacher Nicole Halbeisen of Charlotte's Northwest School of the Arts.
Added Angela Gaio of Sardis Elementary in Union County: “It's really upsetting when we hear elected officials and members around the community calling us thugs for wanting to better the schools for their children.”
Yes, a state lawmaker from Union County - Mark Brody - used that word in a social media post to describe teachers who took the day off for the rally.
But there were signs that at least some lawmakers were listening. Small groups of teachers could be seen in the legislature's hallways and on the mall sharing concerns with lawmakers - both Republicans and Democrats.
The question for educators is whether those open ears will translate to future votes on more school funding.