RALEIGH, N.C. — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had just cheered the packed block of red-clad teachers by urging his Republican rivals running North Carolina's legislature to pay more for public school upgrades and teacher salaries.
"What are you prepared to do?" the woman in the red "RESPECT public education" T-shirt shouted into the microphone Wednesday afternoon.
"Whatever it takes!" thousands of educators shouted back.
Now Cooper and legislators who opened their annual work session on Wednesday are waiting to see what happens after an estimated 19,000 people marched through the capital city, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which drew from aerial photos.
Their main demand is that the General Assembly, where Republicans hold majorities large enough to override any Cooper veto of their legislation, stop tax cuts on upper-income households and corporations due in January, and to channel more spending into public education. Legislative leaders have promised an average 6 percent pay raise for educators, which would be the fifth in five years.
Cooper has proposed an average 8 percent teacher pay raise this year, $25 million for textbooks and digital learning and a $150 stipend for teachers who shell out for classroom supplies.
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 that still represents a 9.4 percent slide in real income since 2009 due to inflation, the union said.
"Ultimately, we'd like to see per-pupil spending and salaries for teachers, teaching assistants and support staff all be national average," said Freddie Lewis, a special education teacher at Eastern Guilford High School near Greensboro.
Barbara Faulkner, a South Granville High School English teacher who makes $53,000 per year, said a house she owned went into foreclosure because she had planned her spending around a seniority-based raise plan that was stopped a decade ago.
The 38-year-old said her concerns go beyond teacher pay to basic school needs that go unfunded.
"We have a library but no librarian. You can't check out books," she said. "The collection hasn't been updated. The library is for storage and meetings. The books are on the floor."
Wednesday's march in North Carolina prompted more than three-dozen school districts that educate more than two-thirds of the state's 1.5 million public school students to cancel class. 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.
Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican who represents the coastal Outer Banks, said it's doubtful lawmakers will veer away from merit-based pay raises rather than rewarding all teachers as if they were equally productive. Increasing teacher pay to the national average, another demand of march organizers, isn't much of a priority, he said.
"A lot of people want to throw money at a problem, and that's helpful some times. But you've got to be smart about what you're doing with your money. What we've tried to do is put it into play in such a way that we reward people for doing a good job," Cook said.
Cooper told protesting teachers voters will decide in November's elections whether to back incumbents or candidates "who truly support public education." Cook said legislators fully understood the politics behind the agitation.
"As far as I can tell, this rally is more about supporting the Democratic Party than it is actually being the huge issue they would have you think it is. Because even they know that we're on the right track and have been helping and will continue to help our teachers," Cook said.