Arizona schools shut as teachers wait for deal on pay raise

Arizona schools shut as teachers wait for deal on pay raise
Arizona schools shut as teachers wait for deal on pay raise

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Dozens of school districts in Arizona canceled classes on Thursday as the prospect of another day of a statewide teacher walk-out grew more likely after lawmakers had still not reached a budget deal that would include a pay hike for educators.

Inside the state capitol, lawmakers worked into the early morning, trying to pass a $10.4 billion budget that teachers hope will include a 20-percent increase in pay. Outside on the capitol plaza, hundreds of red-clad teachers held a night-long rally as they waited for a budget deal that would end their strike, local media reported.

Districts in Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe, along with more than three dozen districts throughout the state, notified parents and local media that classes were canceled on Thursday, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

Tens of thousands of Arizona teachers have held rallies and marches during their week-long walkout, the largest in U.S. history, which has kept most of state's 1.1 million public school students out of class since April 26.

The protests are part of a national teacher action that began in West Virginia and spread to other Republican-controlled states, including Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Teachers have demanded states reverse education spending cuts imposed since tax revenues ran short during the U.S. recession that ended in 2009.

Arizona House Republican Whip Kelly Townsend said earlier on Wednesday that lawmakers were working fervently to pass the budget but it would take time to go through amendments.

As well as the pay rise, Arizona teachers want more classroom resources, higher pay for support staff and a promise of no new tax cuts until state per-student funding is brought up to the national average.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has proposed a plan to raise salaries by 20 percent over two years for teachers, whose pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year. The plan lifts school funding by $371 million over five years, far less than the $1.1 billion teachers say has been cut from their budgets since the recession.

Walkout organizers said they could not support the budget, but recognized it was likely the best offer they would get.

They have turned their attention to a November ballot initiative to raise $690 million annually through a tax hike on the state's highest earners. The initiative proposes creating a dedicated stream of education funding that lawmakers cannot use to balance the budget or for other spending.

(Reporting by David Schwartz and Andrew Hay; editing by David Stamp)

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