Raleigh, N.C. — As state lawmakers returned to Raleigh on Wednesday to open their 2014 session, teachers rallied nearby to keep the focus on raises that Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders have promised in recent months.
"The education policies right now for our state are heading in the wrong direction, and it's impacting our teachers, our kids and our state," said Justin Ashley, who took the day off from teaching fourth-grade social studies at McAlpine Elementary School in Charlotte to take part in the demonstration.
McCrory and lawmakers have devised a plan to boost starting teacher salaries to $35,000 within two years and to give other teachers an average 2 percent raise this year. Despite a tight budget, they have vowed that the raises will be part of a final spending plan for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.
"In our budget, our base proposal is staying in there," McCrory said Wednesday as he unveiled his proposed $21 billion budget.
Teachers said, however, that it's not enough. The North Carolina Association of Educators want lawmakers to lift salaries and per-pupil funding to national averages. North Carolina ranks near the bottom nationwide in both measures.
Scores of teachers wearing shirts that said "I (Heart) Public Schools" marched to the State Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, where they dropped off cookies and personal pleas at McCrory's office. The cookies signaled that the governor's proposal needs to be sweeter, but they also harkened back to an episode last summer when McCrory presented protesters outside the Executive Mansion with a plate of cookies.
Earlier in the day, they dropped off stacks of petitions at lawmakers' offices.
"Everybody needs a living wage," said Dawn Moretz, a Union County teacher. "They need to go back to the salary schedule that they haven't kept up with for the last six years. I've kept my end of the contract. They haven't."
The NCAE also wants teachers paid more for earning advanced degrees and the repeal of a law ending the tenure rights of veteran teachers and another law that created a private school voucher program.
"Our students deserve better, our parents deserve better, educators deserve better and North Carolina can do better," NCAE President Rodney Ellis said.
Legislative leaders said they're confident all teachers will see a raise, but reaching the national average will take some time.
"We'll get there quickly on the new teacher hires. I think we'll be there within two to four years – the national average of new hires," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. "Moving forward, we want to get other teachers up."
In the coming days, Apodaca said, a bill will be filed that mandates that 51 percent of school funding go to teacher salaries. He said that's up from 47 to 48 percent.
"I think you'll see some changes, but you're not going to see a totally, you're not going to see a sweep, but we are going to move forward and try to be as fair as possible," he said.
For Ashley, North Carolina's history teacher of the year, any raise might come too late. He's already looking for teaching jobs in South Carolina, where salaries are higher.
"It's time for me to make a move because it's in the best interest of my family," he said. "No offers yet, but we're in the process of doing the paperwork and moving forward. So, we'll see."