North Carolina teachers rally by the thousands for higher wages and more education funding
Participants make their way towards the legislative building during a teachers rally at the General Assembly in Raleigh, North Carolina, Wednesday, May 16. Gerry Broome/AP

A sea of teachers decked out in red descended upon Raleigh, North Carolina, on Wednesday for a rally for higher wages and increases to state education funding. An estimated 1 million students were affected by school closures.

Following in the footsteps of teachers in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado — all of which have recently experienced similar protests of post-recession cuts to education funding — North Carolina’s teachers gathered outside of the General Assembly in Raleigh on Wednesday. But unlike educators in other states, the Tar Heel State’s public employees are explicitly prohibited from striking — thus Wednesday’s action was titled an “advocacy day.”

Teachers in North Carolina participated in an advocacy day outside of the state legislature on Wednesday.
Teachers in North Carolina participated in an advocacy day outside of the state legislature on Wednesday. Jared Speight/Mic

Despite a milder official designation, however, John Wood — a teacher at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school near Durham — said that teachers had turned out en masse as a direct challenge to politicians who have consistently pursued party interests over their demands.

“Education should not be political,” Wood, who teaches digital music creation and video production, said. “The GOP legislators in the N.C. General Assembly have politicized education, and they refuse to do what’s best for teachers and students.”

By Wood’s estimate, he spends “hundreds of dollars” of his own money each year on classroom supplies.

A sea of teachers descended upon Raleigh, North Carolina, on Wednesday.
A sea of teachers descended upon Raleigh, North Carolina, on Wednesday. Jared Speight/Mic

“I see students every day that can’t afford clothes, lunch, etc…and I am the one buying it for them, along with several other fellow teachers,” he said. “We are — in some cases — the only positive encounters for these kids, and we have to spend money out of our pockets to do so.”

More than 20 years ago, North Carolina’s Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Leandro v. State case that the state was bound by its Constitution to grant every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” But according to the National Education Association, North Carolina ranks 37th in the country in teacher pay and 39th in per-pupil spending.

Jared Speight, a social studies teacher at North Stanly High School who participated in Wednesday’s march, said straightforwardly that his students are being “failed” by the amount of funding the state’s schools receive.

“I teach at the high school I attended,” Speight said. “This semester, one of my former students approached me and pulled out her AP history book smiling because my name was in the front cover. This student was in diapers when I used that book, but it’s still in use. The technology that we have in our schools is outdated and we aren’t preparing students for the future when they have the tools from the past.”

North Carolina teachers rally in Raleigh on Wednesday.
North Carolina teachers rally in Raleigh on Wednesday. Jared Speight/Mic

Although the Wednesday rally is the only action of its kind currently on the slate for North Carolina’s teachers, both Wood and Speight said that it’s “just the beginning” of the backlash coming to lawmakers when the polls open in November.

“I don’t know how many teachers showed up here today, but it’s hard to imagine that so many would be willing to stay outside in the rain but not take a few minutes to vote months from now,” Speight said.

Wood echoed the sentiment and said that in his district, students had gone so far as to organize voter registration rallies for seniors turning 18 this year so that they could help in the efforts to vote out incumbent politicians who vote against teachers’ interests.

“I know several teachers [and] former teachers running for office to try and keep up the fight,” he said. “I know several teachers (like myself) that hold politicians accountable on their social media platforms, fighting their fuzzy math with facts.”

“This is just the beginning,” he added. “You can’t silence us all.”