RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's public school teachers and their supporters showed up in force Wednesday to demand an overhaul of the state's education priorities, bring thousands to a march and rally in the state's capital.
Chanting "Whose schools? Our schools! Whose voice? Our voice," they rallied in Raleigh for the second year in a row. They want more money for student support staff, such as counselors and nurses — features now included in the state House budget written by Republican legislators.
A fatal shooting at a college campus one day earlier was on many protesters minds, adding a somber note to the energetic demonstration.
The march was especially personal for Madhavi Krevat, whose son Jacob is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. A gunman killed two students and injured four others Tuesday on the UNCC campus.
"I was terrified," said Krevat, 51, of Apex, a member of the gun-control group Moms Demand Action. "My son was on lockdown for four hours. It's something I never thought would happen."
No crowd estimate was available for this year's march and rally. A permit request from the North Carolina Association of Educators estimated 20,000 would attend, about as many as were on hand for last year's protest.
The South Carolina Department of Public safety tweeted that about 10,000 people attended a similar rally at the statehouse in Columbia.
Sophomore Kyle Brantley of Blythewood High School told the South Carolina crowd that improving public schools is "not a Republican or Democratic issue. It's a statewide issue."
"Educators have the right to be compensated fairly for teaching students like me," he said.
South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who previously criticized teachers for marching on a school day, called the rally "instructive."
"These teachers that are here this year need to be in the classroom next year happy teaching. I don't want them to feel like they have to come back here next year," McMaster told The Associated Press in an interview.
North Carolina teachers also were criticized by Republican leaders, including the state superintendent of public instruction, for leaving school for the rally. In response, demonstrators chanted "We are not skipping school! Today we teach the golden rule!"
Krevat said she's often concerned for her daughter, 16-year-old Leah Krevat, a junior at Apex High School. She said the school has received four threats of school shootings in the past four months.
"This march is relevant because ... we don't need more guns in our schools ... we need more services," Krevat said.
Seventh-grader Aaron Painter said he participated because he wants more mental health services in his school, which he said has one full-time counselor.
"We need more help because there are kids that are thinking about suicide and they're only in seventh grade," Painter said, adding that he knows some of those students personally.
Painter marched alongside his mother, Tonya Painter, a third-grade teacher at McGee's Crossroads Elementary school in Johnston County. She's concerned about what she sees as a focus on testing over student safety.
"Every mind matters," she said. "I feel like the school shootings all started years before, with probably bullying or anxiety and depression — things that students are dealing with that they need help working through."
North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper told the demonstrators in Raleigh that teachers "are often the first line of defense in crises big and small."
"School safety is vital, and that doesn't mean putting guns with teachers in the classroom," he said to loud applause.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and its allies are hoping the election of more Democrats last fall will help them get some of their demands. The November election broke the Republican supermajority in the state House and Senate, meaning Cooper's vetoes can't be overridden if Democrats stay united.
In an interview Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said he spoke with rally participants from his home county who appreciated the new House budget provisions benefiting education and the previous efforts of legislators.
"We have done a great deal . what we are doing is tremendous," Moore said, adding that tax cuts have ultimately led to more economic growth and more revenue.
He said the association's leadership "doesn't necessarily speak for all the teachers."
The nearly $24 billion spending package includes money to raise teacher pay on average by 4.8%, weighted toward the most veteran educators. A 10% salary supplement for teachers with master's degrees, phased out earlier this decade, would be restored.
It doesn't include several NCAE demands, including a $15-per-hour minimum wage for local school custodians and other workers and expansion of Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people.
Republican legislators say the NCAE and its allies ignore strong gains in education spending, teacher pay and graduation rates since they took over the General Assembly eight years ago.
The Rev. William Barber, who co-chairs the Poor People's Campaign and led regular "Moral Monday" protests when he was president of the state NAACP chapter, told the crowd that it was morally right to petition legislators.
But it shouldn't have taken a massive event to get their attention, he said.
"It's an insult to make people have to shut down school systems and get in the street for their legislators to turn a little bit in the right direction," Barber said.
This story corrects spelling to Krevat instead of Kravet throughout.
Associated Press reporters Martha Waggoner in Raleigh and Christina L. Myers in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this story.