Thousands of teachers, other school employees and their supporters marched through downtown Raleigh and then held a rally near the state legislature Wednesday, demanding that lawmakers increase funding for public education and Medicaid.
A sea of protesters wearing red filed up Fayetteville Street from the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts to the State Capitol and the Legislative Building.
They carried signs that talked about teacher pay, too much testing, the General Assembly and state school superintendent Mark Johnson. Pop culture messages abounded in their signs, from “Game of Thrones” to “Star Wars” to “The Avengers” to Ariana Grande.
“I started crying when we were marching,” said Jennifer Collins, testing coordinator at Cleveland High School in Johnston County. “It was so emotional seeing everyone marching together for the same reason.”
Teachers came for the event from across the state, united by some of the same concerns. A trio of teachers from Wayne County said they represented many rural counties where some school employees are required to have commercial drivers’ licenses so they can drive school buses when necessary.
“I drive a bus at least two times a week,” said Isaac Davenport, who teaches agricultural education and voluntarily drives a bus.
Sherai Jones, a teacher from Durham, said, “We’re out here for our students.”
“If we get the support and resources that we need, then that will trickle down into our classrooms and our students will win,” Jones said.
‘The importance of what we do’
Rachel Morse, a teacher assistant and bus driver from Davie County, said North Carolina leaders don’t understand an educator’s job and the many roles they must perform throughout the school year.
Organizers hoped the May 1 “Day of Action” organized by the N.C. Association of Educators would surpass the crowd at last year’s protest and build on the momentum that they credit with helping to mobilize voters in last fall’s election to break Republican supermajorities in the legislature.
So many school employees requested Wednesday off that more than 850,000 public school students across North Carolina had the day off because there weren’t enough substitute teachers to safely hold classes.
No immediate crowd number was available, though there seemed to be fewer people than last year, when the Downtown Raleigh Alliance estimated a crowd of 19,000. The alliance was not providing an estimate this year.
The Raleigh Police Department said it does not do crowd estimates for outdoor events, citing the difficulty of coming up with accurate figures.
Mark Jewell, the NCAE president, said the group wouldn’t have a count for a few days. But Jewell said he thought the crowd was bigger than last year, when NCAE had estimated the crowd at 30,000 people.
Marchers chanted a variety of slogans: “Education is a right! This is why we’ve got to fight!” “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Defunding schools has got to go!” “Down with vouchers!” and “We are not skipping school when we teach the Golden Rule!”
Entrepreneurs saw opportunity in educators’ anger. They walked through the clusters of teachers offering buttons and red T-shirts for sale.
Remembering Charlotte violence
Some in the crowd wore green ribbons on their red shirts to remember the victims in Tuesday’s shooting on the UNC Charlotte campus. Jewell said the shooting proved, again, that students need access to more medical care and counseling than legislators have been willing to provide.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, told the crowd that he had visited UNC Charlotte on Tuesday night and would be returning to the campus after the protest. He called educators “the first line of defense for crises big and small.”
“Every day, I will fight for teachers and for public education in our state,” Cooper said. “And when I go back to the campus of UNC Charlotte this afternoon and stand in vigil with their students and faculty tonight, I will tell them that our teachers are with them, that you support them and that they are in your prayers.”
The march drew non-teachers such as Lindsay Gaughran, a parent at Stough Elementary in Raleigh who brought her two daughters.
“It’s just so important to support the efforts here,” Gaughran said. “The teachers need to be supported.”
Local elected officials also came to the march, including Durham City Council members Vernetta Alston and Charlie Reece.
Concetta Erricchiello, a senior at N.C. State University studying education, said more funding for school counselors is needed.
“During my student teaching, I saw a lack of availability for some of the children that really needed it. It’s really heartbreaking when you know a child needs help, whether it’s academic help or mental health, and they don’t have the ability to receive that,” Erricchiello said.
Inside the Legislative Building on Wednesday, a table was set up in an with water, oranges, granola bars, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a sign that read “Courtesy of NC House Democrats.”
Once the march reached the Legislative Building, a few marchers went inside briefly. But most gathered outside on Halifax Mall. The NCAE had “report cards” set up there showing how House and Senate members had voted on education issues.
Marchers listed five demands:
▪ Provide a $15 minimum wage for school support staff, 5 percent raise for all school employees and a 5 percent cost of living adjustment for retirees.
▪ Provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals to meet national standard,
▪ Expand Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families.
▪ Reinstate state retiree health benefits for teachers who will be hired after 2021.
▪ Restore extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees such as a master’s degree.
Speakers promoted the five items during an hour-long rally on Halifax Mall, directly behind the N.C. Legislative Building and adjacent to the state Education Building.
The Rev. William Barber II wrapped up the rally, giving his first speech on the grounds since he was banned from the property after a protest in 2017. A judge recently lifted the restriction, specifically denying a prosecutor’s request that Barber be kept away at least until after the teachers rally, because he tends to draw a crowd.
“They didn’t want me to come,” Barber told the crowd, “but it looks like they’ve got a bigger problem than me.”
‘Teach them a lesson’
Barber told the teachers, teacher assistants, nurses, counselors, custodians and other school workers who stood in the sun that they were right — morally, legally, constitutionally and religiously — to stand where legislators could hear them and demand better treatment.
“It’s time to teach them a lesson,” he said again and again, to the teachers’ cheers. Barber especially praised the group’s solidarity, advocating not only for themselves but for each other and the students.
He cautioned them not to be divided or pitted against one another.
“Together,” he said, “we will turn North Carolina around.”
The protest and rally came Wednesday as the House Appropriations Committee worked through the new state budget.
A day before the protest, state House leaders announced budget details that call for restoring extra pay for advanced degrees and pay raises ranging from 1 percent or $500 for school support staff to 4.6 percent for teachers, 6.3 percent for assistant principals and 10 percent for principals.
Rebecca Brady, a teacher assistant at Holly Ridge Elementary School in Holly Springs, called the 1-percent raise for support staff “insulting.” She held a sign saying that she makes less than $23,000 a year after 15 years of being a teacher assistant.
“We deserve a substantial pay raise,” Brady said. “We deserve a living wage.”
House Speaker Tim Moore promoted Tuesday how the proposed state budget would raise the average teacher salary from $53,975 a year to $55,600 by 2020. But several teachers said Wednesday that they make considerably less than the state average.
Tina Platek, a high school teacher in Cabarrus County, held up a sign saying that her children qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch because the family income is so low.
Brittany Argall, an 8th-grade science teacher at Carroll Middle School in Raleigh, carried a sign saying that she makes more money from her second job selling direct-order shampoo products. Platek and Argall said their main concern though is that their schools don’t have enough resources, such as nurses and counselors, to give the students the help that they need.
Republican legislative leaders have been critical of the march, pointing to how they’ve increased education funding over the past several years, including raising North Carolina’s ranking on average teacher pay from 47th in the nation in 2013 to 29th this year.
But NCAE says the march has strong public support, pointing to a poll from Public Policy Polling that found that 71 percent of respondents said they support teachers taking the day off to protest.
While the march was taking place, Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County said in a news release that few teachers had sought to meet with GOP legislators.
“Of the thousands of people who will be here, hardly any scheduled meetings with legislators,” Hise said. “This is not advocacy. This is not a ‘work day.’ This is a political rally for Democrats that’s keeping nearly one million kids out of school.”
‘A political stunt’
NCAE organized teachers by county on Halifax Mall so that lawmakers could meet with educators after the rally.
Republican lawmakers and Superintendent Johnson criticized the decision to hold the protest on a school day, causing at least 34 school districts and 10 charter schools to cancel classes. Those districts and charter schools that are closed Wednesday represent 56 percent of the state’s 1.53 million public school enrollment.
“Republicans too believe that teachers should be paid more and given more resources,” Darren Eustance, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, said in an email message Wednesday. “But this march is a political stunt hurts the poorest families of our state. It forces working families to find child care or take a day off. It takes a lunch away from a child who needs it,”
Fewer districts canceled classes compared to last year. Some districts encouraged teachers to send small delegations from individual schools to this year’s protest while keeping school open.
Some protesters, like Argall of Carroll Middle School, had also attended last year’s event.
“Until our students get the schools that they deserve, we will be out here,” she said.
But this could be the last large-scale protest on a school day. The state House budget would limit when school could close in the future, including requiring principals to confirm they had a substitute teacher available before approving any personal leave requests.
Democratic Rep. Rosa Gill, a retired teacher from Raleigh, proposed an amendment Wednesday to remove that part of the budget bill, but it failed to pass in the House Appropriations Committee. Gill said the General Assembly should consider stopping protesters by listening to them, instead of restricting their ability to protest.
“If you don’t want teachers to march on Raleigh every year, there is a much easier approach,” she said.
Staff writer Will Doran contributed to this story.