Thousands of teachers are set to hit the streets of North Carolina's capital on Wednesday, determined to force a political showdown over wages and funding priorities for public school classrooms in this conservative, tax-cutting state.
As many as 15,000 teachers were expected to defy forecasts of rain for a rally in Raleigh as the Republican-dominated state legislature begins its annual session. Previous strikes, walkouts and protests in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and Oklahoma have led legislators in each state to improve pay, benefits or overall school funding.
The state's main teacher advocacy group, the North Carolina Association of Educators, demands that legislators increase per-pupil spending to the national average in four years, increase school construction for a growing state, and approve a multiyear pay raise for teachers and school support staff that would raise incomes to the national average.
More than three dozen school districts that together educate more than two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students have decided to close classrooms to allow for the show of strength by the teachers and their advocacy group.
"The fact that a million kids are not going to be in school (Wednesday) because a political organization wants to have folks come there to communicate with us or send a message" should be the day's focus, said state Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican.
The teachers' group favors a proposal by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to raise salaries by stopping planned tax cuts on corporations and high-income households.
Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore made clear they have no plans to funnel more money to classrooms by postponing January's planned tax cuts, including one for what is already one of the country's lowest corporate income taxes.
"We have no intention of raising taxes," Berger said.
But with the Great Recession history and the state's financial stability restored, teachers say it's time to catch up on deferred school spending. Teachers are photocopying assignments off the internet or from old workbooks because textbooks haven't been replenished in years, North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell said.
"We're grossly underfunding our schools," he said.
North Carolina teachers earn an average salary of about $50,000, ranking them 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, the NEA said. But the union points out that that still represents a 9.4 percent slide in real income since 2009 due to inflation.
Their demands are also political. The Republican-led legislature should expand Medicaid coverage so students and their families stay healthy, and cancel corporate tax cuts until school spending is increased, Jewell said.
Jewell said teachers don't really expect GOP lawmakers to meet all their demands, which is why they are also urging voters to not re-elect them.
"All of this will be fruitless unless we take this energy and passion to the ballot box and change those who are making the policy," Jewell said.
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