PHOENIX — Striking Arizona teachers who won a big pay increase but came up substantially short of achieving their demands for more school funding flooded the Arizona Capitol for a fifth day Wednesday hoping it will be the last they are out of their classrooms.
The Republican-controlled Legislature was considering a state budget that promises the first installment of a 20 percent pay increase by 2020 and a partial restoration of cuts to education funding, but many teachers said if the lawmakers failed to act Wednesday, they would not go back to work.
A day full of delays led strike organizers to ask teachers to return Thursday, and some school districts that had planned to re-open cancelled classes. The House and Senate planned late-night debates on the budget package.
Teachers didn't get everything they wanted, but believe they made major inroads. They had sought an immediate 20 percent pay raise, competitive pay for support professionals, guaranteed annual raises, funding returned to 2008 levels and no new tax cuts until Arizona reaches the national per-pupil funding average.
"We here in Arizona have banded together as educators, we've set up a grass-roots movement with 1,700 schools involved, 1,700 liaisons, and if we're ever called to come back we will come back together and we'll come back stronger," middle school teacher Scott Gebbie said.
He was among thousands of #RedforEd movement educators at the Capitol on Wednesday.
The tentative budget deal between legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is a major victory for teachers, who were offered only a 1-percent raise in the governor's initial budget proposal. The offer set for debate and likely passage by late Wednesday remains substantially unchanged from the one announced two weeks before teachers walked out last Thursday.
Lawmakers did tweak it with changes to the rosy economic projections Ducey relied on to make funding more sustainable. And a top Republican lawmaker gave teachers credit for keeping the pressure on.
"I think that they had a promise from us that we were going to do something," House Majority Leader John Allen said. "Our track record of delivering that promise has not always been perfect, so I don't think they wasted their time."
Ducey, who is seeking re-election and faced the wrath of teachers for pushing tax cuts while the state's teacher pay and school funding remains among the lowest in the nation, also will likely declare victory. The Republican Governors Association is already running ads touting Ducey as providing major new school funding "without raising taxes."
The grass-roots group called Arizona Educators United that called the strike was created in early March as a wave of teacher protests over low pay and school funding swept across the nation. From its beginnings in West Virginia, it spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and most recently Colorado.
But Arizona's schools closures likely affected the most students, more than 800,000, and the first day of the strike saw a crowd estimated at 50,000 march to the state Capitol.
Teachers say they're not happy with what they've been offered, even though they realize this is what they will get this year.
"It bothers me a lot, but we'll be back in November and we'll be doing a lot of work between now and then getting the people in who will support education and will stop these tax cuts, and we will have the money," said Sarah Barrett, an early childhood special education teacher in Mesa, who said her school doesn't have the money to fix its air conditioning.
She said she is a Republican but is fed up with the state Legislature and with Ducey. "I didn't put him in, but I for sure will make sure he gets out, because this is ridiculous," Barrett said. "We deserve better."
On Tuesday, the ad-hoc group and the Arizona Education Association told teachers to return to work Thursday if the budget is passed.
Educators had to change their tactics after budget approval appeared imminent, association president Joe Thomas said. Now, the movement will pivot to longer-term efforts, such as a ballot initiative to create an increased funding stream and electing lawmakers who support public education funding.
Thomas said Wednesday he's confident that educators and their supporters will remain mobilized
"The writing is on the wall, they're going to ignore the students and teachers and plight of the schools, and they're going to put through the budget they want," he said.