PHOENIX – Teachers in Arizona and Colorado turned their state Capitols into a sea of red Thursday as they kicked off widespread walkouts that shut down public schools in a bid for better pay and education funding, building on educator revolt that emerged elsewhere in the U.S. but whose political prospects were not clear.
Tens of thousands of teachers wearing red shirts and holding “Money for Schools” signs launched the first-ever statewide strike by marching 2 miles in 90-degree heat to a rally at the Arizona Capitol. They plan to walk out again Friday to press lawmakers for their demands as will Colorado educators.
Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn’t guaranteed and the efforts don’t go far enough. The walkouts are the climax of an uprising that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.
Most of Arizona’s public schools will be closed the rest of the week, and about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over the two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement’s #RedforEd mantle.
“I feel like funding for the schools should be at the top of the list,” said Brandon Hartley, a charter school teacher from the Phoenix suburb of Peoria who brought his 7-year-old son to the Arizona rally.
Other parents who brought their children to the protest in Phoenix expressed support despite school closures that led makeshift day care operations to open at schools and recreation centers to help working parents. Food banks and some schools also were providing free meals that many students rely on.
Mariaelena Sandoval brought her 11-year-old daughter and held a sign that said, “I’m a Republican, I’m voting and I’m #RedforEd.” She said she had a “wake-up call” when she learned a teacher paid out of pocket for a field trip.
“I’m walking for her,” Sandoval said of her daughter.
The crowd, many of whom carried water jugs and umbrellas to combat the heat, streamed through the streets of downtown Phoenix as employees at courthouses and office buildings left work to watch. Phoenix Police Department estimated the crowd size at 50,000.
In much cooler Colorado, several thousand educators rallied around the Capitol, with many using personal time to attend two days of protests expected to draw as many as 10,000 demonstrators. They chanted, “Education is our right” and “We’re not gonna take it anymore,” getting honks from passing cars.
“We’re not asking for a lot of money,” said Danielle Rose, a first-grade teacher from Westminster, Colorado. “We’re just asking to be able to live in Colorado, where the cost of living is much higher.”
Lawmakers there have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the Great Recession. But teachers say Colorado has a long way to go to recover lost ground because of strict tax and spending limits.
Because lawmakers cannot raise taxes without voter approval, they’re not expecting an immediate fix. The teachers’ union is backing a ballot initiative to raise taxes on corporations and those earning over $150,000 a year.
Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has proposed 20 percent raises by 2020 and said he has no plans to meet with striking teachers or address other demands, including about $1 billion to return school funding to pre-Great Recession levels and increased pay for support staff.
Teachers and some lawmakers are concerned Ducey’s proposal relies on overly optimistic revenue projections. It also doesn’t address educators’ other demands.
A key legislative leader said Republican leaders in the House agreed Thursday to support Ducey’s proposal that doesn’t address other teacher demands. Rep. David Livingston, head of the House Appropriations Committee, said the deal should result in a formal budget plan next week, but details must still be worked out.
But it’s not clear how it will affect the walkout, which has no end date and began because teachers found the plan insufficient.
Joe Thomas of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher membership group, said educators may have to consider a ballot initiative seeking education funding if a plan by lawmakers isn’t successful.
School districts closed and teachers protested across Arizona. South in Tucson, educators waved signs on sidewalks, while up north, protesters marched to Flagstaff City Hall and others gathered on the Navajo reservation.
But schools were open in Lake Havasu City, where Karen Flenniken has two grandchildren in grade school.
“The teachers signed a contract, and they need to honor the contract,” said Flenniken, describing the walkout as blackmail.
More than 840,000 Arizona students were expected to be out of school Thursday, according to an analysis from The Arizona Republic that tallied up at least 100 school districts and charter schools that were closing.
Many school districts also planned to close Friday, possibly sending kids to another day of day camps or other care options at community organizations.
Addie Martinez dropped off her 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter at a Phoenix Salvation Army that was offering child care before she rushed to her medical assistant job. The facility has room for up to 100 kids and provides breakfast, lunch and snacks for $25 per child.
Martinez said she was prepared to take her children back Friday and next week to the center, which has activities such as arts and crafts and dodgeball. Despite the inconvenience, she said she supported the teachers because “they are educating our future.”
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