A day after thousands of educators took to the streets in Raleigh, the question turned Thursday to how best to support North Carolina's public school teachers.
Between 19,000 and 30,000 people marched in Raleigh on Wednesday to demand that state lawmakers do more to raise teacher pay and per-pupil spending. The "March for Students and Rally for Respect" was the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history and has caused people to ask what the next steps should be for public education in North Carolina.
The News & Observer's Community Voices forum brought together educators, policy analysts and state lawmakers to the N.C. Museum of History on Thursday evening to suggest ways to help teachers charged with educating 1.5 million students.
All the panelists agreed that Wednesday's rally was beneficial.
"(The rally) has already changed everything," said Kristin Beller, president-elect of the Wake County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators. "Yesterday we defeated hopelessness and fear in North Carolina teachers, support staff and parents who are worried that they're not going to have a public school for their kids."
Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who chairs several House education committees, said Wednesday could have been more productive if legislators had come to schools instead of teachers coming to them. But Horn said his colleagues still benefited from meeting with teachers.
"I thought, all in all, yesterday was a good thing for North Carolina and that we learned a lot and perhaps maybe we've begun to talk to each other," Horn said.
But disagreement rose over how best to go from there.
NCAE, which organized Wednesday's protest, is demanding that state legislators raise both teacher pay and per-pupil spending to the national average in the next four years and freeze corporate tax cuts until that happens. The National Education Association estimates that North Carolina is 37th nationally in teacher pay and 39th in per-pupil spending.
NCAE's platform also calls for a statewide $1.9 billion school construction bond referendum placed on the ballot.
In contrast, Republican lawmakers who've controlled the General Assembly since 2011 point to how they'd increased education spending. They've also pointed to how this year's 6.2 percent average pay raise will be the fifth consecutive raise for teachers.
Total state education funding is higher now than before, but critics say it's down when you adjust for inflation since the recession in the late 2000s.
Beller charged that years of state education cuts mean North Carolina is facing a public education crisis. She said that it has led to the decline of people wanting to become teachers and that these people no longer feel that teaching will be a lifelong career.
"They come into this profession with a new sense of this is what the new normal is," Beller said. "It's one where we don't have enough desks or seats for the students that are assigned to them. We don't have enough textbooks or updated resources for our students."
Kris Nordstrom, an education finance and policy consultant for the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, said the state has been "blacksliding" the last 10 years as schools have become more segregated by race and income.
"It's directly related to the question at hand of how we support our teachers," Nordstrom said. "We know that when we have more schools that are isolated by race and income that teachers' jobs become a lot harder."
But Horn disagreed that the state isn't making progress in education. He said it took a while to recover from the "big hole" the state was in financially from 2008-12.
"We can do a lot better, but we're not going to do it tonight," Horn said. "We didn't get in this hole tonight. We are, I think, on a trajectory that's right. It took us a while to get there."
Horn found himself on the defensive most of the forum as he fielded questions from both the other panelists and members of the audience. In particular, Horn was challenged when he said that just throwing money at the situation wasn't the answer.
"Does it need a lot more money? Yes," Horn said. "It needs a lot more money spent wisely."
Horn said the state needs to make sure it finds a way to build up the economy in the poor counties to improve education and raise the quality of life there. In the process, he said, the state needs to look at the tax system to see if it's raising sufficient funds and that they're being spent wisely.
"North Carolinians don't mind paying taxes," Horn said. "What they mind is not getting their money's worth. I'm not talking about education here because I think by and large we get our money's worth in education. But I can't say that across the board."
Horn said that the key is for people who disagree not to demonize each other.
"When we start talking to each other as individuals and not as monoliths, not as 'you people,' we can solve many problems," he said.