Arizona teacher raises passed after strike shuts schools
By BOB CHRISTIE and MELISSA DANIELS
PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona lawmakers pulled an all-nighter to enact a budget Thursday that provides big raises for many of the state’s striking teachers, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed the teacher funding part while the House continued debating the rest of the state’s $10.4 billion budget plan.
The Senate passed the teacher raise legislation just before dawn and the Republican governor immediately signed off on education funding that will give teachers a 9 percent raise in the fall and 5 percent in each of the coming two years. A 1 percent raise had already been approved, so the teachers will get a 20 percent overall increase over four years.
Striking teachers had held watch at the state Capitol all night, packing the House and Senate galleries as lawmakers debated and holding a candlelight vigil on the legislative courtyard.
Organizers of the unprecedented strike that shut down school for most of the state’s 1.1 million public school students had called for teachers to go back to class Thursday if the budget passed. But many large school districts ended up canceling classes for a sixth straight day as the lawmakers worked through the night Wednesday into Thursday.
Shortly after the budget passed, the school district spanning the large Scottsdale suburb of Phoenix announced that schools would reopen on Friday.
The education funding package fell short of teachers demands for move overall school funding, a return to pre-recession funding levels, regular raises, competitive pay for support staff and no more tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average. Big education funding cuts over a decade have left Arizona teachers among the lowest paid in the country, as is overall school funding.
Ducey, a Republican, praised the teacher pay and education funding package.
He said in a statement that “Arizona teachers have earned a raise, and this plan delivers.” The new raises will cost about $300 million for the coming year alone.
Phoenix-area teacher Rebecca Wilson was among those who camped out in the Capitol overnight.
“I’m glad it passed and we’ll get something because I’m a single mom of three kids but it’s not enough,” she told radio station KTAR.
The budget package also provides the state’s schools will a partial restoration of nearly $400 million in recession-era cuts, with a promise to resort the rest in five years. Other cuts remain in place.
Minority Democrats mainly voted against the budget plan, generating criticism from Republicans.
“You know, talk is pretty cheap — it’s your vote that counts,” Republican Rep. Anthony Kern said. “If Republicans voted with Democrats tonight you would be walking away with zero. With zero. You would not have a teacher pay increase, you would not have a 20 percent increase if Republicans voted with Democrats tonight.”
Democratic Rep. Reginald Bolding said Republicans cut education budgets for years, leaving the state with among the lowest paid teachers in the U.S.
“It’s amazing that we sit here and we try to call ourselves a hero after we’ve set the house on fire,” Bolding said. “You can’t set a house on fire, call 911 and claim to be a hero. And that’s what this body has done.”
One Republican lawmaker upset about the teachers strike tried to get an amendment passed making it illegal for teachers to espouse political beliefs at work, another requiring the attorney general to investigate teachers or schools that allow political activity and a third barring schools from closing during a walkout.
“There are hundreds of families contacting me that are harmed financially, occupationally,” an emotional Rep. Kelly Townsend said. “You should not be able to do that to the people of this state because you want funding.”
Rep. Mitzi Epstein, a Democrat, tried and failed to get in an amendment that would mandate a 250:1 ratio for students to school counselors. Epstein said the bill could have a major impact on preventing suicide and bullying and improving academic performance.
“Not only is school not fun anymore, but it’s scary,” she said.
Freeing up the money for the added school funding required cuts and maneuvers across several parts of the budgets, including raids on special funds like one that helps clean up pollution from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks.
But much of the added cash comes from an unexpected boost in revenue that appeared in the first quarter of the year because the economy has finally heated up. As of March 31, the state had brought in more than $330 million more than expected in tax revenue.