About 20,000 North Carolina teachers and their supporters marched on the state Capitol on International Workers’ Day as part of the Red4Ed movement, which is backed by the nation’s largest teachers union and has drawn criticism from Republican leaders across the country.
Hoisting placards and sporting red T-shirts, teachers, counselors, bus drivers and cooks took to Raleigh on Wednesday with demands for a new minimum wage, an expansion of Medicaid and the hiring of additional support staff.
They made a show of solidarity just a year after a similar number poured into the capital city in the first teacher walkout in recent memory.
Republicans and conservatives see a political operation masquerading as a rally for education.
“I believe there is a political aim to these walkouts,” said Terry Stoops, an education scholar with the conservative think tank John Locke Foundation, based in North Carolina. “They’ve softened their tone, but they’re taking aim at the Republican-held General Assembly.”
Mr. Stoops said some teachers object to the Red4Ed’s imagery — a clenched red fist — because it does not represent their ideology or politics.
Former teacher Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, spoke to the crowd at Halifax Mall and addressed the backlash.
“To those who say Medicaid is not an education issue, then I say, ‘You don’t know what education really is,’” Mr. Jewell said.
A top demand in Red4Ed strikes and rallies across the country over the past year has been higher pay for teachers. According to the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, the national average annual starting salary for teachers was $39,249 for the 2017-18 academic year. The average starting salary for teachers in 34 states, including North Carolina ($37,631), fell below the national average.
In addition, the NEA notes that the average salary for teachers nationally was $60,483 in the 2017-18 year; the average salary for North Carolina teachers was $49,970.
Mr. Stoops said the Republican-led North Carolina legislature has passed annual teacher salary increases going on five years and raised the state teachers’ salary ranking from 47th in the nation in 2013 to 29th.
State schools Superintendent Mark Johnson said North Carolina teachers make an average of $54,000, more than the median income in the state.
“We support teachers and are championing the changes our education system needs,” Mr. Johnson, a Republican, said in a statement. “But I cannot support protests that force schools to close.”
Schools in 34 districts among 31 counties closed for the teachers rally at the Capitol, forcing many of the state’s nearly 1.5 million schoolchildren to remain at home. North Carolina has 100 counties and 115 school districts.
The Hertford County School District on the Inner Banks held an “optional work day” for teachers but gave students the day off because it anticipated 50 or more teachers out of a staff of 500 to be headed southwest to Raleigh.
“The district is not opposed to [the protests],” district spokeswoman Brunet Parker told The Washington Times. “[But] if you have that many teachers out, what will happen with our students on a regular day? Our No. 1 priority is making sure our kids are safe.”
The North Carolina protesters rallied at the Capitol as House budget writers debated their two-year government spending plan, which contains items that may assuage some teachers’ frustrations, The Associated Press reported.
The nearly $24 billion spending package includes money to raise teacher pay on average by 4.8%, with the most veteran educators and principals getting much more. A 10% salary supplement for teachers with master’s degrees, phased out earlier this decade, would be restored.
It doesn’t include several demands by the North Carolina Association of Educators, including a $15-per-hour minimum wage for school custodians and other workers and an expansion of Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people.
Republican dominance in state politics fell at the ballot box in November. The party lost supermajorities in the House and the Senate, and NCAE distributed promotional materials in advance. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who addressed the rally, has strong support from the state’s teachers union.
Joined by red-shirted teachers and his wife, also clad in red, Mr. Cooper said he had just returned from Charlotte, where a gunman killed two people and injured four more Tuesday night at the University of North Carolina.
“You are often the first line of defense for crises big and small,” Mr. Cooper told the throng of teachers.
A speaker earlier addressed the need for gun control, once more expanding the playing field of the traditional education topics.
Republican strategist Luke Stancil told an ABC News 11 reporter that he was not questioning the motivations of education supporters but said the focus was straying from the classroom to other Democratic interests.
“This is a rally to elect Democratic legislators in 2020,” said Mr. Stancil, noting that he had seen the distribution of pamphlets urging “hands off Venezuela.” “It’s not 100% about education.”
On the eve of the rally, the House released a budget including some of the teachers’ demands: higher pay for veteran teachers and restoration of a salary bump for teachers with master’s degrees.
The South Carolina Department of Public safety tweeted that about 10,000 people attended a similar rally at the Statehouse in Columbia.
Oregon teachers plan to gather next week as walkouts that began in West Virginia last spring continue across the country, with many proving successful.
• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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