Teachers march in Raleigh, lawmakers give them a standing ovation

Thousands marched on the General Assembly Wednesday in support of teachers and calling for more funding for education

More than 10,000 teachers rallied on Halifax Mall Wednesday, led by the N.C. Association of Educators. (Lauren Rose / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — More than 10,000 N.C. teachers marched at the state capital Wednesday for the first day of the short legislative session, calling for pay raises and more spending on schools. The event, organized by the North Carolina Educators Association, follows five other states in the country to draw national attention with union-led teacher walkouts.

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“We wanted to be part of this movement that brought this wave that was started in West Virginia,” said Lynn Wiscarver, an English teacher at Davie County High School and the vice president of the Davie County Association of Educators. “Unless we make a lot of noise, our representatives, the people in that building, aren’t going to listen to us. They are going to keep doing what they’ve been doing all along. When you affect us, it affects the children.”

Hundreds of teachers in red T-shirts filled a spectators gallery and chanted, “Remember, remember, we vote in November” as the Republican-controlled General Assembly started its session. Miss North Carolina Victoria Huggins sang the National Anthem to open the session. Many of the lawmakers wore red in honor of the teacher rally and gave the teachers in the gallery a standing ovation for their service.

Teachers also filled a plaza outside the legislative building amid chants of “Red for Ed” backed by school marching bands. The protest prompted at least 30 districts, representing more than a million public school students, to cancel classes. Elementary teacher assistant Sarah Jane of New Hanover County schools had a poster full of figures that she said showed low rankings for N.C. in multiple areas of spending, pay and teacher retention, but she said her objections are much about too much testing as pay.

“I got all this off the National Education Association site last night, and seeing this I had to come down,” she said. “School administration is out of touch. They don’t know what’s happening in the classroom, but they can’t audit themselves.”

Carolynn Phillips, a middle school arts teacher from coastal Brunswick County who was named the county’s Teacher of the Year for 2018, called the protest a cry for respect from teachers whose pay ranks toward the bottom of U.S. states.

“We want to talk not just about compensation, but giving more resources to teachers who are asked to do so much more than teach,” Phillips said after meeting lawmakers.

The teachers union, the North Carolina Association of Educators, is calling for per-student spending and teacher pay to be raised to at least the national average, and it wants lawmakers to restore funding for public schools to pre-recession levels. Currently, the average teacher pay in N.C. is just over $51,000 annually, plus available bonuses based on student performance and bonuses for STEM teachers, and approximately $16,000 in benefits. Still, many teachers say they work second jobs in the summer and pay for much of their classroom supplies themselves.

After hearing teachers say they were working second jobs to make ends meet, Democratic Rep. Deb Butler said children would suffer if the state could not keep good teachers.

“That just tells me all I need to know,” Butler said.

Republican legislative leaders have said this year’s planned salary increase of 6 percent would mark the fifth consecutive annual increase. They launched a website, ncteacherraise.com, yesterday to get the numbers out there. The lawmakers spent the day in session, committees and meeting with the teacher delegations from their districts.

“It’s going well — very well, actually,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) as he spoke with visitors on Halifax Mall.

“It’s been a good day. I’ve enjoyed meeting people and talked with constituents,” said Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba). “It’s always good when people come down here. It helps the process. If we don’t know it, we can’t do anything. If we know it, maybe we can act on it.”

The members say they had a good story to share with teachers in addition to the five consecutive pay raises. The pay scales were changed to cut in half the length of time it takes for teachers to reach the top of the pay scale, from 32 years to 15. The state spent $8.93 billion this year on education — the most in 15 years — despite inheriting massive debt when they took over from the Democrat-controlled legislature in 2011.

“According to the NEA, North Carolina Ranked #2 in the US for fastest rising teacher pay in 2017,” Republican Sen. Phil Berger, president pro tempore, said in a comment on Twitter posted during the march.

According to the National Education Association, North Carolina ranks 39th among the 50 states for average teacher salary, well behind the U.S. average of $58,353 in 2016. However, when adjusted for cost-of-living, the state ranks 27th, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research.

“There is usually not this much excitement during the short session, but it’s good to see this many folks turning out to support education, which is critical to our state and critical to our workforce development,” said Sec. Larry Hall, head of the N.C. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and former leader of the Democratic caucus in the House.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget calls for an 8 percent average pay hike and putting a $2 billion bond issue for school construction on the ballot.

“If you want good education, you have to be willing to pay for it. But how do we pay for it?” said Cooper in a speech to the crowd. “We stop the tax cuts that are planned.”

“We’ve heard people like Gov. Cooper push for a return to the same failed approach that required the furloughing of teachers and the freezing of their salaries by Democrats when they were last in control,” said Berger Tuesday in a press conference ahead of the rally. “It led them to … supplementing millions of dollars in state funding with one-time federal stimulus money, leaving a massive hole in our state budget that we’ve been working for years to backfill.”

Legislators have already agreed to a $23.9 billion spending target even before the short session got underway. They plan to have a budget proposal ready by June 1 and adjourn by July 4.