RALEIGH — A sea of public school teachers in red T-shirts chanted, shouted and danced through a rally across the street from the legislature Tuesday afternoon in a raucous fight against budget cuts.
Inside the building, lawmakers droned through amendments to the House Republicans' $19.3 billion budget plan that would slice about $1 billion from education.
The rally went on for hours and attracted Gov. Bev Perdue, who showed up to lend her support on a steamy National Teacher Appreciation Day. She pulled several surprised schoolchildren on stage with her and said to the crowd: "I need to ask you, do you feel appreciated?"
"No!" was the resounding response from several thousand teachers whose homemade signs bobbed with messages such as "Education cuts never heal" and "Kids are worth a penny!"
The latter sign was a reference to a 1-cent sales tax increase that is due to expire. Democrats, including Perdue, want to keep part of the tax to avoid making deeper cuts to education, but Republicans pledged to end it.
Teachers passed buckets at the rally, collecting pennies in a symbolic gesture. The coins will be sent to the state Department of Revenue, according to the N.C. Association of Educators, the state teachers group that held the rally.
"I've got a new phrase for them," said Vickie Wilkins, a 36-year veteran who teaches at Southern Lee High School. "Do the math!"
The crowd started to chant. "Do the math! Do the math!"
"We are not getting the love, and we are not getting their respect," Wilkins said. "Who do they think are teaching their children?"
The House budget proposal would cut public schools by 8.8 percent, community colleges by 10 percent and the 17-campus UNC system by more than 15 percent.
Officials with the state Department of Public Instruction say more than 18,000 public school jobs could be lost, the bulk of them teacher assistants and support staff.
Rep. Jeff Barnhart, a Republican from Cabarrus County and a chief budget writer, said legislators have worked to protect classroom teachers. The House budget does fully fund teaching positions, he said.
"This was not an easy budget. We knew it would be difficult. I think what we've got is a good product overall."
Teachers rode buses into downtown Raleigh to attend the after-school event.
Debbie Johns, who teachers career and technical education at Southwestern High School in Randolph County, said the gathering inspired her. "I think it's a morale booster for teachers who desperately need it right now," she said.
The state risks doing long-term damage, Johns said.
"My biggest fear is the economy in our state," she said. "Companies are not going to want to come here and stay here if the state doesn't care about education. That's my biggest fear. This is a snowball effect. This is not temporary."
The teachers were joined by about a hundred college students who marched from N.C. State University.
"This is no budget crisis," said Bryan Perlmutter, a sophomore at NCSU, where a cut of $80 million is feared. "It's a moral crisis. We will no longer sit back and watch the legislature tear apart the future of this state."
Leah Josephson, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior, said she has noticed a decline in her student experience in the past four years. One course she planned to take this year was canceled.
"Our classes are getting bigger, it's harder and harder to graduate on time, and our education is getting more expensive," she said. "We think that has to stop."
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.
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