Downtown Raleigh came alive Wednesday with thousands of North Carolina educators filling the streets to demand lawmakers increase funding for public schools.
Educators and their supporters began to gather at the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) headquarters near the Duke Energy Center before 8 a.m.
By mid-morning, they were marching to the state legislature, chanting slogans and flashing signs, many of which highlighted educators’ five demands to the Republican-led General Assembly.
A spirited rally at the legislature was punctuated by jabs at Superintendent Mark Johnson, who was attending a State Board of Education meeting nearby.
Johnson has been roundly criticized by educators for suggesting teachers choose a day to protest when students aren’t in school.
Gov. Roy Cooper made an appearance to support educators. He also noted the tragic shooting on the UNC Charlotte campus.
Two students were killed and four seriously wounded before the shooter was apprehended.
“As educators, I know you often think about school safety when you walk into your schools, classrooms and gymnasiums,” Cooper said. “We must work for a day when no student, no teacher, no parent is fearful for their safety at a school or anywhere else.”
Cooper was scheduled to attend a vigil on the UNC Charlotte campus Wednesday night.
“I will tell them that our teachers are with them, that you support them and that they are in your prayers,” Cooper said.
Mark Jewell, president of the NCAE, also noted the shooting at the university.
“This incident is yet another example of the need for decision-makers to take action to prevent dangerous weapons from reaching the hands of dangerous people,” Jewell said. “The thoughts and prayers are not enough to keep our students safe.”
Jewell said such incidents highlight the need for more school psychologists, counselors and nurses. Additional funding to adequately staff those positions along with librarians is among the NCAE’s five demands.
“Our students need to be healthy and safe at school with proper counselors and medical attention,” Jewell said.
Jewell said the best way to ensure children and families in North Carolina are healthy is to expand Medicaid, which is also one of the NCAE’s demands.
“Healthy kids come from healthy families and there is no single, better way of ensuring quality, affordable health care than an expansion of Medicaid,” Jewell said. “Our state is now in the minority of state’s that have not expanded.”
The NCAE’s other three demands include restoration of extra pay for advanced degrees, an increase in the minimum wage for all school personnel to $15 an hour and restoration of retiree health benefits for teachers hired after 2021.
The need for more counselors and school psychologists was on the minds of educators as they prepared to march to the legislature.
Lydia Sarpong, a Lee County teacher, said school districts desperately need more support specialists so teachers can focus on the jobs they are hired to do.
“It would allow us to actually teach and actually do our jobs instead of trying to substitute for a psychologist,” Sarpong said. “I’m not a certified psychologist. Teaching is becoming secondary.”
Kate Mester, a teacher at Riverside High School in Durham, said Riverside has 1,900 students, but only one nurse available, two days a week.
Mester said there was no nurse on hand when one of her students had a serious diabetic attack.
“She almost died in a coma and it could have been prevented if we’d had a nurse,” Mester said.
Like Sarpong, Mester attended last year’s march that brought nearly 20,000 people to downtown Raleigh to demand better teacher pay and increased funding for public schools.
Mester said she thinks teachers made a difference last year, noting that Democrats broke Republicans supermajorities in the state House and Senate to give Cooper veto power.
“I hope that they’re [Republican lawmakers] seeing that we can’t be ignored, that we’re a powerful voice, that we matter and that we’re also voters,” Mester said.
Chris Meek, a high school teacher from Wilmington who serves on the NCAE Board of Directors, said teachers will continue to fight if their demands aren’t met.
“The important thing is you might not win every battle, every day, but if you win two or three of those things, you’re that much closer to your goal,” Meek said.
The NCAE march and rally coincided with meetings of the State Board of Education and a busy day for House members working on budget recommendations.
Lawmakers took a break between noon and 2 p.m., to meet with educators.
But some like Rep. Charles Graham, (D-Lumberton), made his way to the rally to support educators.
“This is a great show of support for the teaching profession,” Graham said. “As a former educator, I’m encouraged these teachers want to be heard, they want to be understood and they want to be treated as professionals.”
Graham said he believes teachers’ activism has made a difference.
“It’s gets attention,” Graham said. “The thing teachers can’t do is walk away from here and not follow their [House] members’ vote. It’s not a one and done deal. They have to keep their eye on the target and hold their [House] member accountable.”
Sen. Floyd McKissick, (D-Durham), also stopped by the rally. He said his colleagues should pay attention to what educators have to say.
“Education is the most important issue in our state,” McKissick said. “The positions that they [NCAE] have articulated are the five most critical issues and are things I have been behind historically.”
Many educators have vowed to return to Raleigh for a third rally if lawmakers don’t include the five demands in the state’s two-year spending plan.
But that might be easier said than done.
Changes to state law rolled into the House Education budget would make it tougher for teachers to take a personal day.
Under proposed changes to state law, a request for personal leave could not be approved on any regular school day “unless the availability of a substitute for that teacher is confirmed that day.”