PHOENIX – Arizona teachers said they will end a historic statewide strike Thursday that shut down schools for days if lawmakers pass a plan that offers big raises and increased school funding but that still falls short of their demands.
Organizers made the announcement Tuesday after educators statewide walked off the job last week and closed schools to demand higher pay and more education spending. The Arizona action followed a teacher uprising that started in other parts of the U.S. and was punctuated by a march of tens of thousands of red-clad supporters.
Those mobilizing teachers criticized a Republican-led funding plan but said it was time to go back to work.
“Our fight is not over, we have options,” said Rebecca Garelli, a teacher and strike organizer. “But it is time for us to get back to our students and get back into our classrooms.”
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and GOP legislative leaders have agreed on a state budget proposal that could be passed into law this week but doesn’t increase classroom resources as much as educators sought.
The plan moving through the Republican-led Legislature gives teachers a 10 percent raise next year and starts restoring some of the nearly $400 million in cuts to a fund that pays for supplies, repairs and some support staff salaries. It is expected to pass Wednesday, setting the stage for the walkout to end.
The governor has promised to bump teacher pay 20 percent by 2020 and restore payments to that fund to pre-recession levels in five years. Ducey had resisted giving teachers more than a 1 percent raise that he promised in January until teachers neared a strike vote. Then he came up with a new spending plan.
“We’re glad the strike is coming to an end. We’ve been working exceptionally hard to pass this budget and get this money to teachers,” Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. “While our students head back to the classroom, we hope our teachers will head back knowing we have worked very hard to take a major step toward rewarding them for their invaluable work.”
An Arizona grass-roots group that launched in early March after West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent raise said they would not let off the pressure, despite the decision to go back to work. Before teachers return to school Thursday, they will hold walk-ins, dressing in red T-shirts and standing in solidarity.
After that, the long game is to push for a ballot initiative that creates new funding streams for education and to elect policymakers who support increasing school funding, said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the largest teacher membership group.
“We have so many people now that are paying attention to what’s going on, they will never turn away from this fight now,” he said. “They understand that there are people down here who do not care as much about students as they care.”
The walkout began last Thursday, shutting down most public schools. Two-thirds of Arizona’s student population was still out of school through Tuesday, and some districts were expected to stay closed Wednesday.
Teachers have packed raucous rallies at the state Capitol for days, while others have helped care for students and tried to maintain community support.
Organizers urged teachers to hold community events, with some talking to parents over coffee and others crowding street corners in red shirts.
Gladys Garcia said many of her students rely on free or reduced price meals at Challenger Middle School in Tucson and she organized with colleagues to collect food to hand out at a public library.
“It’s our way to let the kids know, `We’re actively trying to do something for you, please don’t feel like we’re turning our backs on you,“’ the first-year teacher said.
Many community members supported teachers’ efforts, but pressure was increasing on some parents and school administrators.
Gabriel Trujillo, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, the second-largest in the state, said he didn’t support the walkout because it takes teachers out of classrooms. He said he does back the objectives of the so-called (hash)RedforEd movement, with his schools facing a host of funding needs.
But Trujillo was concerned teachers would lose public support if the strike dragged on. He said when he called off school for the fourth day in a row, he received more “angry communications” from parents than he had last week.
“I felt like the energy on Thursday was palpable,” Trujillo said of the launch of the walkout. “Now that we’re into day four, I think that’s on the line.”
Organizers seemed to acknowledge the strain but reasserted what the walkout was about.
“Our greatest victory is the powerful movement we have created, which we are going to continue on behalf of our students, because this movement has always been about our students,” Garelli said.
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