North Carolina educators want state legislators to come up with more money and they don't care if it comes from gamblers, smokers or corporations.
They suggest that lawmakers close corporate loopholes, tax cigarettes and alcohol or even push through a lottery, saying that without more revenue, their pay and benefits will fall behind and the state's children will suffer for it.
"If you're against our agenda, then you're against motherhood, you're against apple pie and you're against education," Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, a former educator, told about 1,500 members of the North Carolina Association of Educators who rallied downtown Wednesday.
They met on the lawn outside the building where legislators from both the House and the Senate are negotiating a final budget and at times were encouraged to chant "Raise revenue now" and other slogans loud enough for the lawmakers to hear.
The proposals from each chamber call for average raises of no more than 1.8 percent this year and beginning in 2004-05 would eliminate bonuses for teachers whose students excel on standardized tests.
The 70,000-member NCAE also wants lawmakers to approve a budget by June 30 after learning that teachers may be charged as much as $88 a month for health insurance unless a new state plan goes into place to make up the difference, said NCAE President Carolyn McKinney. Teachers pay nothing now for their health coverage.
Senate president Marc Basnight, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and other elected officials spent a few minutes offering the NCAE their support. The crowd applauded graciously for most of them, but booed when Basnight said he didn't expect legislators trying to dig out of another budget hole to find much more money.
The House has rejected the Senate proposals for increasing tobacco and alcohol taxes and isn't likely to approve a lottery.
Basnight encouraged teachers to work harder at home to elect representatives who support those initiatives.
"I want you to have more money, but that's not going to make it happen," Basnight said after some members of the audience began to shout "State lottery" while he spoke.
The rising revenue shortfall this year has resulted in a budget shortfall of at least $200 million in the spending plans passed by the two chambers. The budget gaps means that legislators will have to make additional spending cuts or enact additional tax increases to balance the roughly $15.1 billion proposals.
Susan Overby, a teacher at East Surry High School in Pilot Mountain, said she worried that legislators would continue to chip away at her health benefits as she recovers from two bouts with cancer in the past five years.
"I still see doctors frequently," she said.
Paige Searcy, who teaches at the same school, said dwindling budgets mean fewer books, less paper and insufficient supplies. Some schools buy one set of books that remain in the classrooms instead of giving each child their own book, she said.
"That sort of negates any kind of homework," she said.
Many of those who attended the rally spent a few minutes in legislators' office letting them know they wanted the state to devote more money to education.
"If NCAE is not going to stand up for increasing revenue for public education, who is?" McKinney asked.