(CNN)Thousands of North Carolina teachers missed school Wednesday to rally at the state legislative building in Raleigh, calling for better pay, benefits and more state spending per student.
North Carolina teachers want better pay and they're marching to fight for it
The teachers -- many wearing shirts of red, a color adopted by protesting educators in other states -- marched from the state educators' association building to the legislative building. They packed the third-floor galleries as the Legislature reconvened.
With so many educators using a personal day for the rally, hundreds of schools in the state were closed to students Wednesday. Wake County Public School System -- the largest in the state -- was among those canceling classes.
Demonstrators marched with signs such as "Fund our future" and "Superheroes should not need 3 jobs," and chanted refrains such as "We vote in November."
Among them was Lisa Godwin, the state's 2017 teacher of the year. Salary increases are needed, she said, in part to make up for freezes during the recession and mitigate what teachers spend on classroom supplies.
"I hope (lawmakers) take away the understanding that students deserve more, and teachers can't give more unless we're paid adequately," said Godwin, a kindergarten teacher in coastal Onslow County.
After watching the Legislature reconvene and meeting with lawmakers in the afternoon, the teachers held a Rally for Respect in a plaza across from the legislative building.
Wednesday's march and rally follows similar teacher protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Though North Carolina teachers are missing just one day of classes, the long-term plan is to pressure lawmakers through November's elections.
"It's the beginning of a six-month stretch of time to hold our legislators accountable for prioritizing corporate tax cuts instead of our classrooms," according to the North Carolina Association of Educators.
According to the National Education Association, North Carolina teachers ranked 39th in average teacher pay last year, with an average salary of $49,970. They've had some salary increases in recent years, but when adjusted for inflation, they've lost 9.4% in pay since 2009.
The state teachers' group said the increases have gone largely to entry- and midlevel teachers, but that the most experienced educators' pay has barely risen since 2008.
The NEA report also says North Carolina ranks 39th in per-student spending -- about $2,313 less per student than the national average of $11,642.
"The lackluster rankings come at the same time that the North Carolina General Assembly has passed massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy," the educators' association said.
The group said it wants lawmakers to:
-- Invest more in spending per student.
-- Create a multiyear pay plan for teachers, support staff, administrators and all other school personnel.
"This plan must include restoration of compensation for advanced degrees and longevity," the state teachers group said. "The plan must also stop the flat-lining of experienced educators' pay."
-- Increase the number of school nurses, counselors, social workers and other support personnel and expand Medicaid to improve community health.
-- Create a statewide school construction board to fix crumbling schools and reduce large class sizes.
One of Wednesday's demonstrators, special education teacher Mazaliyah Morris, had a sign listing items that she buys for her classroom and her students, such as pencils, scissors, rulers, calculators and backpacks.
She said she has a part-time job to help pay for these expenses.
"I spend close to $100 a month out of my own pocket for classroom stuff," said Morris, who teaches at Middle Creek High School southwest of Raleigh.
In an apparent pre-emptive strike, House Speaker Tim Moore said budget leaders in the Republican-controlled House and Senate on Tuesday officially committed to at least a 6.2% increase in teacher salaries for the upcoming fiscal year.
He called the proposed increase "a major step" and told reporters the raise would represent the fifth recent year that teacher pay has increased in North Carolina. That increase will bring the average teacher pay to more than $53,000, not accounting for local supplements, benefits or bonuses, he said.
Moore's spokesman acknowledged that per-student spending and teachers' salaries, when adjusted for inflation, aren't as high as they were 10 years ago because "the state was unprepared for the national recession."
But funding for both are on the rise, spokesman Joseph Kyzer said.
"Overall, spending on education has been increasing in a long-term, sustainable way," Kyzer said.
Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, has said the state could be spending a lot more on schools if it hadn't shrunk revenues by lowering corporate and personal income tax rates in the past few years.
He points to a 2017 report by the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which said North Carolina would have at least $2.8 billion more in annual revenue if legislators had not changed the tax system that existed in 2013.
"They're starving our school districts," Jewell said in April, referring to the Legislature.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has proposed a budget that he says would raise teachers' pay, on average, by 8%. Part of that, he said, would be paid for by canceling further tax cuts, scheduled for next year, for corporations and people making more than $200,000 a year.
Cooper told CNN on Wednesday that he supports the demonstrating teachers.
"We have to continue to climb up the national rankings," Cooper said. "We have to get to at least the national average, and if we don't pay our veteran teachers, if we leave them out ... that's unacceptable."