Myra Johansen, a teacher with the Newton-Conover Schools in Catawba County, was well prepared for the teacher rally in Raleigh on Wednesday that went on during intermittent rain showers. She brought a clear umbrella with the letters R-E-S-P-E-C-T pasted inside around the rim.
But the 54-year-old teacher wasn't prepared for the feeling that overwhelmed her when her cause was joined by thousands of red-shirted teachers, parents and students lining up to march down Faytetteville Street to the State Capitol.
"It brought tears to my eyes when I first got in line," said Johansen, who is training for a second job as pharmacy tech to make ends meet. "It was just awesome."
The moving crowd was indeed a moving event. Thousands and thousands of teachers became a red river surging toward the state's lawmakers. It was a great release of frustration after years of enduring shoddy treatment.
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Since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, teachers have been stripped of their pay for advanced degrees and longevity of service. They've also lost their protection from arbitrary firing. They've heard legislators denigrate public schools and venerate school choice. All the while they've worked in schools that lack enough textbooks and supplies and have seen their meager raises eroded by inflation and health insurance premiums to the point where they're losing ground. Their average pay ranks 37th nationally. Per-pupil spending is 39th.
Perhaps most insulting is the argument from Republican legislative leaders such as Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger that teachers really have nothing to be upset about. Raises in teacher pay have been approved the past five years.
The NC Justice Center knocked down this talking point with a fact check it issued Tuesday. It said: "North Carolina’s average teacher salary trailed the national average by 16 percent in FY 10-11, and continues to trail the national average by 16 percent today. We actually would have lost ground against the national average had local districts not increased their local teacher salary supplements over this period."
On Wednesday, teachers stomped on the Republican spin. They want real gains in their pay and in school funding. Their story unfolded in the messages on their signs. They were of a great variety — angry, pleading, witty. All of them true. Here's a sampling:
"Even librarians can't keep quiet anymore."
"If you can read this, pay a teacher."
"Education cuts never heal."
"Are you OK with your NCAA basketball teams being 39th?"
"15,000 strong can't all be wrong."
"WTF — Where's The Funding?"
"How can students get ahead if we leave teachers behind?"
"Our kids deserve better funding. We deserve better legislators."
"I'm so angry I could vote."
"Make NC a right to learn state"
"My outrage won't fit on this sign"
"I can't stay for the whole demonstration. I have to get back to my second job."
"I work to make a living. I teach to make a difference."
"Make public education great again."
"I'd rather be teaching, but this is important."
"Teachers just wanna have funds."
"NC exports chemicals, machinery, teachers."
"Those who can, teach. Those who can't make unfair laws about education."
"Fund NC classrooms, not corporate boardrooms."
"Teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions."
"Below average is not OK for my students."
" 'I do it for the money' — said no teacher ever."
"I'd rather have a (hot dog image) than a Berger."
"Tar Heel born, Tar Heel bred, I'm here to fight for Tar Heel red."
"Damn those rich teachers and their '98 Camrys."
"Do you still want to arm us?"
"Sorry for the inconvenience. We are trying to change the world."
"We'll remember in November."