Teachers rally in Raleigh to advocate for education funding

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina teachers took to the streets Wednesday for the second consecutive year with hopes that a more politically balanced legislature will be more willing to meet their demands.

Teachers, auxiliary staff and supporters marched in Raleigh with scheduled speakers that included Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign.

When an estimated 20,000 people marched for teachers last year, Republicans held a veto-proof majority in the state House and Senate. The results of November's election changed that, and now Cooper's vetoes can stand if Democrats remain united.

"It's a good turnout," Cooper told ABC11. "I think everybody needs to strongly support public education and continue to think about the people at UNC Charlotte right now and the tragedy they're going through. I know that we all have to work together for safe schools."

The House budget released Tuesday includes some of the teachers' demands: higher pay for veteran teachers and restoration of a salary bump for teachers with masters' degrees.

When one Nash-Rocky Mount Schools teacher was asked why she was so passionate about her job, she told ABC11 that someone had to fight for "what's right."

"Somebody has to be passionate, and if you have the people who are passionate about it in the classroom, voices will be heard," she said.

Mark Johnson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the state supports teachers and is working to increase their pay.

"The average teacher pay is now $54,000 per year," Johnson said. "The median teacher salary in North Carolina is more than the median household income in North Carolina. That's a good start, we need to continue being more aggressive."

However, he said he does not support the organizers of the rally.

"I could not support them choosing May 1, a day that causes schools to close because it has such a ripple effect in our community. One: Students miss instructional time ... It's also about students' nutrition. Some students need school nutrition to get the nutrition they need during the day," he said.

He said it was an unfortunate time because parents needed to work.

"I believe it would have been just as impactful had it happened at a later time when school was not in session," Johnson said.

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, defended having the rally on what normally would be a school day.

"We have done that before, and we have seen our schools continue to decline and student funding and resources," Jewell said. "We've come on the weekends and nothing has happened. We came last year, and we elected some policy makers on November the 6. We come this year. Now it's time to change the policies.

"This is just beautiful," Jewell added. "We are extremely pleased with this enormous turnout here today. I couldn't be prouder."

Teachers in neighboring South Carolina also rallied Wednesday and Oregon teachers plan to gather next week as walkouts that began in West Virginia last spring continue across the country, with many proving successful.

In Raleigh, teachers were going to meeting spots Wednesday morning ahead of the march and rally. One group of teachers donning red shirts with the North Carolina state outline walked to the state legislative building Wednesday morning. Among them was a seventh-grade student, Aaron Painter.

Painter said he's participating because he wants to see more mental health services in his school, which he said has one full-time counselor.

"I know mental health is low in our school. We need more help because there are kids that are thinking about suicide and they're only in seventh grade," Painter said.

He knows a few of them personally.

Painter marched alongside his mother, Tonya Painter, a third-grade teacher at McGee's Crossroads Elementary school in Johnston County. She said she has been teaching for 18 years, and every year, her students take more tests.

"These students are 8 years old and they're taking BOGs, COGATs, MCLASS testing, MAP testing, NCCHECK tests, and EOGs," she said, rattling off a list of acronyms for various statewide tests. "That's a large amount of tests."

While lots of funding goes toward these tests, Tonya Painter said she doesn't believe that enough funding goes toward holistic teaching and services for the students. She said she wants her students to be prepared for more than just tests. Like her son, one of her biggest concerns is mental health, especially given the uptick in school shootings during the past two decades.

"Every mind matters," she said. "I feel like the school shootings all started years before, with probably bullying or anxiety and depression - things that students are dealing with that they need help working through."

She wants more money for guidance counselors, school psychiatrists and nurses.

A crowd count wasn't available for the North Carolina march rally, but the North Carolina Association of Educators estimated in a permit request that 20,000 people would attend.

The North Carolina protest occurred as state House budget-writers debated publicly their two-year government spending plan, which contains items that may assuage some teachers' frustrations.

The nearly $24 billion spending package includes money to raise teacher pay on average by 4.8%, with the most veteran educators and principals getting much more. A 10 percent salary supplement for teachers with master's degrees, phased out earlier this decade, would be restored.

It doesn't include several demands by the North Carolina Association of Educators, including a $15-per-hour minimum wage for local school custodians and other workers and expansion of Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people.

Republican legislators say the NCAE and its allies are ignoring strong gains in education spending, teacher pay and graduation rates since they took over the General Assembly eight years ago. Average teacher pay has improved from 47th in the country in the 2013 to an estimated 29th this year, according to the National Education Association.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger has been particularly critical of Wednesday's events, calling the NCAE a left-wing group that organized a one-day paid "strike" designed to help Cooper and other Democrats. More than 30 school districts canceled classes because so many teachers asked for the day off.

Teachers contend that the advances cited by Republicans aren't enough.

Middle school special education teacher Lizzie Hourigan teaches at Noble Middle School in New Hanover County and said it's "a constant struggle" to make ends meet. She taught for 10 years in New York and Connecticut before moving down to North Carolina in 2013 to teach, and she said she noticed a big difference in the level of pay and support she received as a teacher in North Carolina.

She invited those who have been critical of the rally to come into her classroom or other classrooms in her school, where she said overcrowding is another issue.

"See what we work with every day," Hourigan said. "In New Hanover, they're building more and more housing but there aren't the schools to support the kids moving in."

Thirty-four districts in 31 counties were closed Wednesday ahead of the protest.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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