Thousands of teachers from around the state marched through downtown to the Legislative Building, where the Republican-controlled legislature was starting its annual work session. Organizers' prior estimate of 15,000 participants appeared easily met as city blocks turned the color of the red shirts worn by most marchers. Chants included "We care! We vote!" and "This is What Democracy Looks Like!"
"The main reason I'm here is, I've seen the pattern over the years where I feel the current politicians in charge of the state are anti-public education," said Raleigh high school teacher Bill Notarnicola as he prepared a time-lapse photo along the parade route. "As we're growing, the funds are not keeping up with the growth. We are seeing cutback, after cutback, after cutback."
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.
Wednesday's rally in North Carolina prompted three-dozen school districts that educate more than two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students to cancel class.
Rachel Holdridge, a special education teacher at Wilmington's Alderman Elementary School, said she drives for Uber to make ends meet despite working in education for 22 years. She said lawmakers and state government have let teachers down by failing to equip them properly to do their job.
"They keep giving tiny raises and taking so much away from the kids," said Holdridge, who came to the Legislative Building ahead of the march to lobby legislators. While she took a sober view of whether the rally would change policy, she said: "You've got to start somewhere."
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.
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.
However, state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, have 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 ahead of the march. He said the day's focus should be "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."
But with the Great Recession in the past 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.
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.
Tiffany Pfouts, an arts teacher at Mills Park Middle School in Cary, carried a sign that read "It's about RESPECT." She said simple capital needs in her school, such as building repairs, have been neglected.
"We have toilets in our seventh grade hallway that won't even work," Pfouts said. "It's not about our salaries — it's about everything else."