By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - Thousands of North Carolina teachers were expected to rally at the capitol on Wednesday for higher pay and increased education spending in a walk-out that follows similar protests from teachers in other states seeking more money for schools.
The protests are part of a wave of actions and strikes this year by teachers in states including West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado who feel lawmakers have failed to adequately pay teachers and provide for schools.
Up to 20,000 teachers and supporters are expected to march through downtown to the Republican-dominated legislature as it goes into session, organizers said.
At least 38 districts, representing more than half of the state's 1.5 million public school students, canceled schools due to teacher absences, it said.
The North Carolina Association of Educators, which planned the event, is calling for per-student spending and teacher pay to be raised to at least the national average, and for lawmakers to restore funding for public schools to pre-recession levels.
"This is about so much more than teacher pay," President Mark Jewell said in an interview, adding the group's long-term goal is ousting lawmakers who favor tax cuts for business at the expense of spending for education.
Republican leaders note this year's planned salary increase of 6 percent would mark the fifth consecutive annual increase. While the state ranks 39th among states for average teacher salary in the most recent report by the National Education Association, it has seen some of the highest percent increases in recent years, they said
"Despite these facts, we know, there's a lot of politically motivated rhetoric and misinformation out there," Republican Senator Phil Berger, president pro tempore, said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Some Republicans criticized protesters for holding the rallies on a school day. Mark Brody, a Republican state representative from the Charlotte area, referred to organizers as "bullies and self-serving thugs" in a Facebook post.
Carolynn Phillips, teacher of the year for Brunswick County, said it is worth losing a school day for long-terms gains for the education system.
"This is nothing in comparison to what our state's students have to gain by re-positioning education at the forefront of our priorities," Phillips said in an interview.
(Reporting by Marti Maguire; Additional reporting by Kirk Bado in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Michael Perry)