North Carolina legislature opens as teachers gather for rally

Participants make their way towards the Legislative Building during a teachers rally at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Thousands of teachers rallied at the state Capital seeking a political showdown over wages and funding for public school classrooms. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The North Carolina General Assembly has opened its annual session with thousands of teachers and their allies inside and outside the Legislative Building.

The gavels went down on the House and Senate shortly after noon Wednesday, amid galleries full of teacher support clad in red shirts. Just outside the galleries, hundreds more teachers in the building chanted "Remember, remember, we vote in November." They quieted down after a warning by General Assembly police.

The floor meetings lasted less than an hour. Four women in the Senate gallery were led out by police because they were chanting. One yelled: "Education is a Right: That is why we have to fight." No arrests were made.

North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell was in the House gallery. He said he was thrilled that thousands attended the march, but that work must continue until November elections.

Some North Carolina legislators said they're listening to teachers crammed by the thousands into the state capital, but they're not giving in to demands to sharply increase public school spending.

Republican Sen. Bill Cook said after Wednesday's 30-minute opening of the state legislature's annual session he isn't swayed by the activism. Cook says he thinks the teachers are caught up in a national movement after demonstrations in West Virginia, Arizona and elsewhere. No school districts in Cook's eight-county Outer Banks region canceled classes for the rally.

Cook says he thinks the rally is more about supporting the Democratic Party in a political season than economic upset. He says he thinks teachers know the legislature is on the right track with five years of salary raises and merit-based bonuses.

North Carolina's Democratic governor told the thousands of teachers who came to Raleigh demanding higher pay and more education funding that if Republican lawmakers won't support them, they should be voted out of office.

Gov. Roy Cooper spoke at Wednesday's "Rally for Respect," put on by the North Carolina Association of Educators. He promoted his budget proposal, which works toward bringing teacher pay up to the national average in four years by blocking tax cuts that GOP lawmakers already approved for corporations and high wage-earners.

Cooper is working to overturn Republican super-majorities in the state legislature. He says voters have to decide to back incumbents or candidates "who truly support public education."

Republican lawmakers say they're raising teacher pay for the fifth straight year, raising average salaries by thousands of dollars since the Great Recession.

But teachers say that with inflation, they're still making 9 percent less than they did nine years ago.