Teachers in Arizona and Colorado Walk Out Over Education Funding

Teachers, supporters and students at Chase Field, a baseball stadium in Phoenix, before their march to the State Capitol on Thursday.

PHOENIX — Thousands of teachers in Arizona and Colorado walked out of their classrooms on Thursday to demand more funding for public schools, the latest surge of a teacher protest movement that has already swept through three states and is spreading quickly to others.

Hundreds of public schools were shut down in Arizona because of the walkouts, which turned the streets of Downtown Phoenix into seas of crimson as educators and their supporters marched to the State Capitol wearing red T-shirts and chanting “Red for Ed,” as the movement is known here.

Widespread teacher protests have in recent months upended daily routines in the conservative-leaning states West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. But the sight of public workers protesting en masse in the Arizona capital, one of the largest Republican strongholds in the country, and demanding tax increases for more school funding, spoke to the enduring strength of the movement and signaled shifts in political winds ahead of this year’s midterm elections.

“I’ll be voting for anyone who supports public education,” said Jamie Woodward, a curriculum coordinator from Cottonwood, Ariz. “We have impoverished teachers living in camper trailers.” Ms. Woodward, 40, was a registered Republican for 17 years, she said, but recently became an independent.

An analysis by The Arizona Republic showed that more than 840,000 of the state’s 1.1 million public school students could be affected by the school closings.

Teachers and their supporters began gathering on Thursday morning around Chase Field, a baseball stadium in Phoenix. From there, they marched to the Capitol to hold a rally calling for restoring education funding to pre-Recession levels, raising their pay, and halting tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

The march unfolded peacefully, with many teachers walking with their children and other supporters; nearly everyone was wearing the red shirts symbolizing their movement. Their signs read: “This Republican family supports #RedforEd,” “History is Watching,” and “Arizona’s top exports: Citrus, Copper, Teachers.”

Much of the protesters’ ire was directed at Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, who has resisted demands to end tax cuts to bolster public education spending. Teachers pressed ahead with the walkout despite a promise by the governor to increase their salaries 20 percent by 2020. Betting that a growing economy will bolster revenue, Mr. Ducey said he could provide the raises and reinforce school budgets without tax increases, a proposal that many teachers and lawmakers doubted.

[What’s the difference between a walkout and a strike? Why is this happening now? Here’s what to know about the teacher protests.]

In a statement Thursday, the governor urged citizens to contact their legislators to urge approval of his pay plan. “Without a doubt, teachers are some of the biggest difference-makers in the lives of Arizona children,” Mr. Ducey said. “They need to be respected, and rewarded, for the work they do — and Arizona can do better on this front.”

Arizona spent $8,141 per pupil in 2017, well below the national average, according to the state’s auditor general. The average teacher salary in Arizona was $48,372 last year, also well below the national average. Younger and less experienced teachers can make far less than the state average.

“This isn’t just a political issue but a moral issue as well,” said Patience Sharp, 43, a writing teacher at a public middle school in Phoenix. Ms. Sharp, who has three children, said she earned about $40,000 a year and had filed for bankruptcy protection two weeks ago.

“My 17-year-old daughter recently told me she also wants to be a teacher,” Ms. Sharp said. “And I just cried.”

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said that the starting salary for teachers in Arizona was about $35,000, which for many in the profession made paying off student loans or starting a family difficult. The organizers of the walkout, Mr. Thomas said, sought to show political leaders how much educators were hurting financially in Arizona, where Republicans control the State Legislature and years of tax cuts have drained education budgets.

“A teaching certification used to secure landing in the middle class,” Mr. Thomas added. “That’s not the case anymore in Arizona, and we need to do something about it now.”

It remains to be seen how Arizona’s leaders will respond to the teachers’ movement, and how long it could last. Teachers in Oklahoma picketed the Capitol for nine days, calling for funding that largely did not materialize, though they did get a $6,000 raise. The statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia shut down schools for almost two weeks.

In Colorado, about 2,000 teachers, students and parents descended on the steps of the gold-domed Capitol in Denver on Thursday, where they urged lawmakers to increase classroom funding. At least 27 districts in Colorado canceled classes, saying they would not have enough teachers to accommodate students on those days.

Anna Petersen, a special-education teacher from suburban Denver, was once a staunch Republican who attended Tea Party rallies and other conservative events. But Ms. Petersen, 28, said her experiences in the classroom in Jefferson County, west of Denver, had helped nudge her political leanings away from the Republican Party.

She spoke of living on take-home pay of about $24,000 a year, furnishing classrooms and failing to persuade her school to provide $300 for new calculators for students.

“I make less than kids at McDonald’s,” Ms. Petersen said. “I have a bachelor’s degree and I’m halfway through my master’s.”

Colorado, which has a Democratic governor and voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, is more socially liberal than West Virginia, Oklahoma and other Republican-dominated states where teacher protests have erupted. But the state has a long anti-tax history. Voters enshrined strict limits on taxes and spending in the State Constitution in the 1990s, and four years ago, they roundly rejected a $1 billion proposal to raise income taxes to pay for all-day kindergarten and other education priorities.

On Thursday, as protesters waved signs declaring that “Teachers Make America Great!” and marched around the Capitol, some said they hoped the teachers’ movement would chip away at that history of fiscal austerity.

Stephanie Pierce, the parent of a third grader, a preschooler and a high school sophomore, did not vote when the $1 billion education bill came on the ballot in 2013. Because Colorado does not fund full-day kindergarten, Ms. Pierce said her family will have to pay $310 a month for her son to attend kindergarten next year. As she stood on the steps of the Capitol on Thursday, she said she now saw school funding as a top political priority.

“I don’t have specific political beliefs, but I do know the teachers need more,” she said.

Colorado’s economy is booming, but the state teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, says the state has shorted the education system $6.6 billion since 2009.

Half of the districts in the state now have four-day school weeks. Kerrie Dallman, the union president, said that the state’s low teacher pay has helped create a 3,000-person staffing shortage. Colorado teachers, she added, are working two or even three jobs, buying their own school supplies or turning to GoFundMe to pay for new textbooks.

“We are collectively fed up after years of doing more with less and being promised it will get better in the future,” Ms. Dallman said. “We can’t afford to wait anymore. The students in Colorado can’t afford to wait any longer.”

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