By David Schwarz
PHOENIX (Reuters) – Thousands of red-clad Arizona teachers flocked to the state Capitol in Phoenix for a third day on Monday to press the Republican-controlled legislature for greater education spending as lawmakers opened talks on various state budget proposals.
In Colorado, meanwhile, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law a plan to provide an additional $255 million for public schools and higher education in his state for the coming fiscal year after teachers there staged a two-day walkout last week.
Arizona’s strike has kept the vast majority of its 1.1 million school children out of classrooms since teachers walked off the job last Thursday. It follows similar walkouts by teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma that marked the first statewide U.S. teacher work stoppages since the 1990s – all in states where Republicans dominate the legislature.
The unprecedented wave of labor activism by teachers has been fueled by demands that states reverse salary and funding constraints imposed during the 2007-2009 recession when tax revenues ran short.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, last week announced a deal with legislative leaders to raise teachers’ pay 20 percent by 2020, along with $371 million in new funding over the next five years for improvements in school infrastructure, new school buses and upgrades to technology and curriculum.
Teacher union officials expressed skepticism for Ducey’s plan, however, saying it fails to address all their concerns and leaves unclear how spending increases would be funded.
They have demanded higher pay for support staff as well as for teachers and a promise that Arizona’s legislators will enact no new tax cuts until the state’s per-student funding level is brought up to the national average. Arizona’s teacher salaries rank among the lowest in the country.
As legislators were briefed on the governor’s plan, a group allied with the striking educators proposed a $695 million tax hike earmarked to pay for teacher and staff salary increases and restore school funding cut during the last decade.
Noah Karvelis, a walkout leader, said teachers planned to stage further rallies at the Capitol building again on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Matt Specht, a spokesman for Arizona’s speaker of the House of Representatives, J.D. Mesnard, said legislators are aiming to achieve final passage of a new state budget, including education, by Thursday.
Several large school districts statewide said their doors would remain closed again on Tuesday, despite threats by Arizona’s conservative Goldwater Institute think tank to sue them over what they term an “illegal strike.”
(Reporting by David Schwarz; Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Writing by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Peter Cooney and Richard Pullin)