RALEIGH — Thousands of North Carolina teachers marched on the state capitol Monday, saying they’ve had enough of the frozen salaries, budget cuts and Republican policy shifts that are wrecking public education.
The weekly “Moral Monday” protest looked to be the largest by far since these rallies started some 12 weeks ago.
The crowd likely topped 5,000 people, and included teachers bused in from across the state by the N.C. Association of Educators.
They were fired up and frustrated. Over the last few weeks, state legislators cut funding for teaching assistants, began phasing out four-figure salary bonuses for teachers with masters degrees, put $10 million toward private-school vouchers and ended tenure for K-12 teachers.
The state ranks near the bottom in state-by-state teacher salary comparisons. The starting pay is $30,800 a year.
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But because of recent salary freezes — broken only by a 1 percent pay bump last year — teachers with years of experience don’t make much more than that.
These things combined with other measures that moved through the legislature this year stoked the crowd’s frustration Monday evening.
That included the slate of new abortion regulations that Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law Monday.
The legislature also passed a bill that requires photo I.D. at the polls and touches on dozens of other facets of election law.
Many see it as a transparent effort to dissuade some people from voting.
“I’m from Mississippi,” said Meagan Malone, a Guilford County high school teacher at the rally. “And I feel like I moved to a Mississippi clone. Things have just turned so quickly, and I don’t really know how that happened.”
Teacher after teacher expressed much the same frustration.
So did abortion-rights advocates, who are holding a two-day vigil outside the governor’s mansion.
Monday afternoon, about 33 people stood across the street from McCrory’s house, waving posters and cheering honking cars as they passed.
Asked if they’d seen the governor, protestors responded: “Who?”
“It’s a feeling of desperation,” said Norma-May Isakow, who travelled from Winston-Salem.
Republicans won a legislative majority in 2010, then added the governor’s office last year.
But many people didn’t expect such a hard right turn in the statehouse and feel there’s nothing left to do but protest and wait for the 2014 elections.
“Enough is enough,” said Denise Jordan, a Guilford County parent who came to Raleigh Monday with several local teachers. “You can’t make a state better if we’re going to totally destroy education.”
That word came up a lot Monday: destroy.
N.C. Association of Educators President Rodney Ellis used it. He also told the crowd that the state budget “quite honestly sucks for public education.”
Republican leaders have repeatedly argued that this is just hyperbole, pointing to more than $7.8 billion budgeted this year for K-12 schools.
That’s a bit more than last year, though not enough to keep per-student funding equal, given the expected increase in enrollment.
A merit-pay system that will be phased in should bring new accountability to classrooms, Republican legislators have said.
Masters degrees aren’t a good predictor of effective teachers and shouldn’t mean an automatic bonus, according to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who championed many of the education reforms that passed this year.
Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said the legislature may tweak its tenure and merit pay reforms in coming years.
And raises remain a priority for leaders in the House and Senate, as well as for McCrory, who initially pushed for a 1 percent increase in this year’s budget.
But Republicans pursued tax cuts instead this year, budgeted to rebuild the state’s rainy day fund and invested more money in Medicaid, the state-and-federally-funded health insurance program, to avoid surprise cost overruns that have plagued the budget in other years.
The income and business tax cuts, Republicans hope, will grow the economy.
That would mean more money for state employees.
State Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, noted that teachers and other state employees have a strong benefits package that private sector employees, who may make more money, often don’t get.
But he said low teacher salaries are a problem, and that he planned to meet with educators between now and the next legislative session, scheduled for next May.
Between now and then, he said, “It’s a time, I think, for reflection.”