RALEIGH — Downtown Raleigh filled Wednesday with thousands of teachers who marched up Fayetteville Street to the state legislature to demand that lawmakers do more to raise teacher pay and education spending in North Carolina.


The crowd, estimated at 19,000 people by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, gathered for the “March for Students and Rally for Respect” — the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history. The all-day event meant more than 1 million public school students had the day off because schools couldn’t find enough substitute teachers to keep schools open for classes.


The marchers, almost all wearing red to show support for teachers, chanted slogans such as “This is what democracy looks like,” “I believe that we will win” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the attack on public schools has got to go.”


After the march, some teachers waited in long lines to enter the legislative building to attend the legislative session. They filled the gallery as the House and Senate opened. At one point, chanting from the teachers drowned out the legislative business.


“We would just like to collectively recognize and thank all the teachers from around the state who traveled to be with us,” House Speaker Tim Moore said from the floor.


Signs included sayings such as “NC teachers are superheroes,” “My 2nd job paid for this sign” and “I shouldn’t have to marry a sugar daddy to teach in North Carolina.”


The Asheboro City Schools were among those districts that opted for a teacher work day to give teachers the chance to participate if they wished.


Philip Homiller, who directs the band program at Asheboro High School, was one of those who made the trip to Raleigh. He described the turnout as amazing, calling those attending a “very civil and energetic crowd.”


“I think that what is striking is that we are seeing very little about teacher pay. Most of the focus is on overall funding and per student funding,” he added.


Brian Nance, an AHS coach and physical education teacher, drove to Raleigh in a show of support for fellow classroom teachers.


“It was like the Fall Festival times 10, crammed into about the same space,” he said. “As far as I could see in front of me and as far as I could see behind me were red T-shirt and signs.”


Nance’s mother was a classroom teacher for 39 years. His parents told him they would not pay for him to earn a college degree to become a teacher. So he studied accounting and business management. He was employed with Burlington Industries for about five years before the plant in Denton where he worked was shuttered. The company offered him the option of moving to Tennessee or Georgia.


He opted instead to take lateral entry into teaching — what he had wanted to do all along. He taught business in the beginning, then some Spanish, then he got certification to teach PE.


Nance said Wednesday’s march was as much about school funding as it was about teacher pay. He also noted that in the private sector, when he was given more responsibility, he received a bump in pay.


“Over 27 years,” he said, “I have seen more accountability and responsibility added to the teacher’s job without compensation.”


Ruth Johnsen, the orchestra teacher at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh, said, “Educators need to be respected. It is not an expense, it’s an investment.”


Reid Guthrie of Siler City said that even though he is not a teacher, he stands with them. “It’s important to show my support for the teachers and show the legislature it is not about teachers being greedy or being thugs.”


Kim Andrews, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Community House Middle School in Charlotte, said, “In my entire teaching career I never had the opportunity to do something like this, where there’s power in numbers and our voices have an opportunity to be heard.”


The N.C. Association of Educators, which organized the event, is demanding state legislators raise both teacher pay and per-pupil spending to the national average in the next four years and to freeze corporate tax cuts until that happens. Their platform also calls for a statewide $1.9 billion school construction bond referendum placed on the ballot.


Dahlresma Marks-Evans, a teacher at Lucas Middle School in Durham, was among the early arrivals in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday. Marks-Evans said it is important to show up to advocate for students and teachers.


“I think it’s going to make a difference,” Marks-Evans said. “I’m going to be positive about it, and I’m going to hope for the best.”


Many of the businesses along Fayetteville Street opened their doors to teachers, who made bathroom and food stops. The Sheraton provided free bottled water and snacks for teachers who stopped in.


NCAE is hoping to build momentum over the next six months to elect “pro-education candidates” this fall to weaken Republican control of the General Assembly.


Republican legislative leaders are pointing to how they’ve increased education funding and are planning to give teachers this year an average 6.2 percent raise, the fifth straight year of raises.


At a news conference Tuesday, Senate Leader Phil Berger and Moore sad that instead of trying to catch up to the national average, they’ll consider giving bonuses for high performers or for teaching jobs in high-demand subjects. They also want to keep all current tax cuts planned to go into effect.


Republicans have criticized the timing of the protest, which is occurring during school hours on the first day of this year’s legislative session. At least 42 school districts, including the state’s six largest — Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford County, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Cumberland County and Union County — canceled classes for the day.


“The fact that a million kids are not going to be in school tomorrow because a political organization wants to have folks come here to communicate with us or send a message or whatever is probably the front-and-center thing about this,” Berger said at Tuesday’s news conference.


Some teachers, such as Chad Schuermeyer, a Catawba County drama teacher, are losing $50 to attend the march. They’re in districts that didn’t cancel classes Wednesday, so the teachers have to pay $50 for a substitute to replace them for the day.


“The reason we’re all here is to fight for our kids so that they will have what they need in the classroom,” Schuermeyer said.


Diana Niemann, a science teacher at South Mecklenburg High in Charlotte, said some teachers at the school didn’t come to Raleigh “because they said they have so much work to do today.”


Niemann added that a parent offered to pay for gas money for teachers to make the trip to Raleigh from Charlotte. “She said, ‘you shouldn’t have to pay for this, to go advocate for yourself.’”


The march comes after teacher strikes and walkouts earlier this year in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia led to changes such as pay raises and higher education spending. Like North Carolina, those are right-to-work states with weak or no official teachers unions and Republican majorities in the statehouse.


Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte said she thinks Wednesday’s march will have an impact.


“This has been building since 2010,” she said. “It’s waking people up. It’s happening nationally, and I’m glad it’s happening in North Carolina.”


Conservative groups seized on a letter sent Monday night by NCAE Organize 2020 to event participants saying they “were inspired by the powerful organizing and social justice focus of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and have been working to bring similar energy to North Carolina.” Organize 2020 says the march can be used to build up support for public education and NCAE.


“If May 16 is going to matter, we have to build our union,” Organize 2020 says in the email.


Rep. Mark Brody, a Union County Republican, put up a Facebook post last week saying that “union thugs” were behind the march. That prompted Maggie Covington, a Catawba County elementary school teacher, to hold a sign Wednesday saying “I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me.”


“I’m proud so many people came here today to support public education,” she said.


Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Education, the group that convinced the Durham school board to become the first in the state to cancel classes May 16, claimed victory for teachers early Wednesday.


“It’s already made a difference,” Proffitt said. “We’ve defeated hopelessness, we’ve already defeated fear — which are our biggest enemies right now.”


Andrews, the Community House Middle teacher, said educators will be back on the job Thursday.


“No matter what happens today we’re going back to our schools,” she said. “We love our kids.”


(Some of this article was written by T. Keung Hui, Greg Childress and Jim Morrill of The News & Observer.)