RALEIGH —Tens of thousands of educators made their point in Raleigh on Wednesday, marching for better pay for themselves and a better education for the students.
“It was historic, it certainly was,” said Rep. Charles Graham.
The Democrat from Lumberton, whose District 47 covers much of Robeson County, said he was able to met and speak with educators from Robeson County and other parts of the state once the marchers reached the Legislative Building. He listened to their concerns, concerns he relates to as a retired educator.
And he told the educators they have his support.
“I emphasized that point with every educator I spoke to,” Graham said.
The march took place on the first day of the General Assembly’s short session. The marchers, many of them wearing red, turned city blocks red as they marched chanting “We care! We vote!” and “This is What Democracy Looks Like!”
An estimated 19,000 people joined the march, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which based its number in part on aerial photos. Many marchers were hoping to achieve what other educators around the country accomplished by pressuring lawmakers for change.
“I truly believe the educators came today to get the respect they deserve,” Rep. Garland Pierce said.
Too many people don’t appreciate the hard work teachers perform in order to educate North Carolina’s children, said the Democrat from Wagram whose District 48 covers part of Robeson County.
Pierce also spoke with educators.
“We were very engaged with the educators, from large districts and small, from all areas of North Carolina,” Pierce said.
He sympathizes with the educators’ concerns and supports them, Pierce said. And he wants to see work done to improve North Carolina’s education system.
Education should not be a partisan issue, he said. Both parties should be working together to give educators the resources they need and to improve the quality of education delivered to the children of North Carolina.
“The party in power, it appears that they have made up their minds in what they were going to do on education in the short session,” Pierce said.
Any real change may have to come through the voting booth, Pierce said. If the teachers aren’t happy with the lawmakers’ efforts during the short session, of it they feel they have been ignored and left behind, they will effect change with their votes.
“Each group will tell their stories,” Pierce said. “And voters will make up their minds about what story they want to believe.
“The proof will be in the pudding.”
One of the teachers marching in Raleigh was Darleen Trujillo, a fifth-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Pembroke Elementary School.
“There were thousands and thousands of teachers. It was gridlock,” Trujillo said. “As a social studies teacher we tell our students their voice counts, so this was our time.”
Trujillo said the support for the rally was amazing, even among non-teachers and from businesses along the march. She went with her two daughters, one a teacher and one a fifth-grader.
“We all had the same story, crumbling buildings, no supplies, lack of teacher assistants,” Trujillo said. “Yes, it was about pay, but so much more.”
One of the uniting sentiments was the lack of respect teachers have experienced from state leaders, Trujillo said. She was not sure if teachers got to meet with legislators because her group was at the end of the march.
“I teach an after-school STEM class in robotic and 3D printing,” Trujillo said. “I raised money for it through Donors Choose.
“Teachers work magic with what we don’t have.”
Many teachers entered the Legislative Building, continuing to chant as the Republican-controlled legislature held 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.
Lisa Risen, who teaches exception children at Rowland Norment Elementary, was another local teacher in the crowd.
“Everyone that I spoke to was very attentive to my concerns,” said Risen, who wrote a letter to the editor to The Robesonian explaining her concerns. It is in today’s newspaper. “The issues that I addressed regarding special needs were very well received. It was noted that this area is not one that has been recognized often. There was a huge, supportive turnout from many counties. Gov. Cooper had some very inspirational words and was sincere in his efforts to address teacher’s concerns. I am very glad that my colleagues and I attended this rally and I look forward to seeing how it continues to unfold.”
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 that educate more than two-thirds of the state’s 1.5 million public school students to cancel class. Robeson was among them.
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 some times. 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,” Cook said.
But Rachel Holdridge, a special education teacher at Wilmington’s Alderman Elementary School, said lawmakers have let teachers down by failing to equip them properly to do their jobs. Despite 22 years’ experience, she said she drives for Uber to make ends meet.
“They keep giving tiny raises and taking so much away from the kids,” Holdridge said outside the Legislative Building. She takes a sober view of how much the march will accomplish, but said: “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Barbara Faulkner, a 38-year-old English teacher at South Granville High School who makes $53,000 per year, said her house went into foreclosure because she had planned for a seniority-based raise plan that was stopped a decade ago.
But she’s also concerned about basic school needs going unfunded.
“We have a library but no librarian. You can’t check out books,” she said. “The collection hasn’t been updated. The library is for storage and meetings. The books are on the floor.”