Gabriel Sandler and Chris McCrory | Cronkite News
PHOENIX – Tens of thousands of Red for Ed protesters marched to the Arizona Capitol on Thursday in a historic demonstration against years of education budget cuts, with protesters demanding higher teacher pay and increased classroom funding.
“I’m here today because my classrooms need it,” said protester Lindsay Nash, a special education teacher in Surprise. “You can only tape textbooks together for so long before they literally don’t stay together anymore.”
The movement’s organizers put out specific demands ahead of the march, including a 20-percent salary increase, restoration of education funding to 2008 levels, extension of salary increases to support staff, development of a permanent structure for annual raises and a freeze on future tax cuts until per-pupil funding matches the national average.
Just before 11 a.m., red-dressed protesters began marching from Chase Field west on Jefferson Street, drumming and chanting, “Red for Ed.” Many brought hats and umbrellas to combat temperatures nearing 90.
More people arrived even as the march started, with protesters arriving from the light rail and driving cars with “Red for Ed” painted on the windows. The Arizona Department of Public Safety estimated that 40,000 people were at the Capitol. The Arizona Education Association said more than 70,000 people participated in Red for Ed events.
Alicia Ehinger, who teaches first grade at Alta Loma Elementary School in Peoria, said she was both excited and nervous about Thursday’s march.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster the last few days,” Ehinger said. “We’re doing this for our students. Arizona kids deserve so much more. … Every single child can be anything they want to be with the help of us.”
At least 75 percent of Arizona’s 1.1 million schoolchildren are in districts that have shut down during the walkout. As for teachers, organizers said 100,000 of them took part in “walk-in” demonstrations before classes over the past three weeks.
Ehinger switched school districts this year to be closer to her family, which includes five children. The move resulted in a large pay decrease, which is what spurred her to action Thursday.
“Just realizing my kids don’t have what they really need, I had to go out and buy a lot of stuff for the classroom that was not provided at our Title I school,” Ehinger said. “We’re going to do what’s right for our kids.”
She said one of her older children was babysitting while she protested.
Thousands of Red for Ed protesters gather at Chase Field before their march on the Capitol. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)
Ehinger is thankful her school district supports the Red for Ed movement, and she remains optimistic that the state government will ultimately work with teachers.
Many school districts encouraged their employees to use personal time or sick days when protesting, but legal experts said it’s unlikely for a school district to take disciplinary action over the walkout, especially when many school superintendents have voiced support for the movement.
More than 100 school districts and charter schools shut down for the walkout. But some school district officials said they hope to reopen classrooms by Monday. Chandler Unified School District told parents Thursday to plan for school to open next week. It’s not clear how many others plan to reopen.
Organizers said they do not have concrete plans for how or when to end the walkout, instead taking it “day by day.”
“Those sorts of decisions are going to be up to the educators,” said Littleton Elementary history teacher Noah Karvelis, one of the leaders of the Arizona Red for Ed movement. “It’s going to be as democratic as we can possibly make it.”
A show of good faith, he said, would be a meeting with the governor.
But Gov. Doug Ducey has declined to meet with Red for Ed leaders, instead pleading with parents Thursday to push their representatives to approve his proposed 20 percent teacher raise by 2020.
He also has refused to negotiate on educators’ four other demands, telling Capitol Media Services before the walkout that his plan was the best offer he would give educators.
The Senate adjourned in the early afternoon for the weekend, with lawmakers saying they would work on school funding legislation before Monday.
State Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, joined the protesters with her daughter after House members left early.
“It was disappointing, it was mostly the Democrats who were left trying to talk, to support teachers,” Engel said. “There were very few members of the majority party there on the floor.
“We’re ready to sit down at any point and look at permanent sources of funding. The only thing that’s making a difference right now is the Red for Ed movement.”
Justin McLellan is a history teacher from Ironwood High School in Glendale who attended the march. McLellan plans to stop teaching next year, but he’s concerned about Arizona’s education trends going forward.
“Make sure all the kids are taken care of, all the facilities are taken care of, all the teachers are taken care of,” he said. “As my kids go through the education system, who are going to be the mentors and leaders for my kids?”
A resolution to the standoff, he said, “would be a sustainable funding source that can continue growth within education to make sure all the kids are taken care of, all the facilities are taken care of, all the teachers are taken care of.”
Not everyone at the Capitol supported Red for Ed. Jennifer Harrison, a member of Patriot Movement AZ, was one of a handful of counterprotesters at Thursday’s march.
“Nobody’s against the teachers, obviously. Everyone likes the teachers and wants teachers to have their money,” she said. “But I think the money is being misappropriated.”
Harrison wants to eliminate the federal Department of Education, which she says loses tax money through “bureaucratic waste.” She is also skeptical of the per-pupil spending models many teachers have pointed to, as well as Karvelis’ motives in general.
“Is four weeks before graduation a time to demand more pay?” Harrison asked. “Kids are being affected by this. I think it’s selfish on behalf of the teachers to put their political demands on children and make children participate in a political message they clearly don’t understand.”
Rep. Kelley Townsend, R-Mesa, agreed, saying children were being used.
“I don’t agree with using children, teachers and inconveniencing families and all of that,” she said.
Townsend on Wednesday had suggested that anyone wronged or impacted by the walkout should contact her office for potential legal action. On Thursday, she took a step back from those comments.
“I am not looking to sue teachers,” she said. “I have had at least 200 emails now of teachers saying ‘I’m not for this,’ ‘I’m supposed to start a new job the day after,’ ‘My kid is supposed to go on a mission,’ or a whole host of things of things that are going to interrupt and interfere and hurt people in our state.”
State Superintendent Dianne Douglas said if lawmakers had gone with a plan she proposed a year ago, which would have funded an 11 percent pay increase for teachers funded by an extension of the Prop 301 sales tax, then the Red for Ed situation would not have happened. But she said Ducey’s proposal is a good plan, and teachers should have voted on that rather than a walkout.
“The governor is negotiating on behalf of all the teachers in Arizona, and I think it’s sad that they chose to walk out,” she said. “It was premature.
The Arizona Department of Education has fielded multiple calls from concerned parents and teachers who did not want to walk out, she said. Those will be investigated, and any credible complaints will be forwarded for potential disciplinary action.
“If somebody files a complaint with the Department of Education, it doesn’t matter whether the behavior is about this strike … our duty is to investigate it,” Douglas said.
Early Thursday, Leslie Lemense brought her 10-year-old daughter to a camp at Rio Vista Recreation Center in Peoria because the girl’s school, Lake Pleasant Elementary School, had closed.
“It’s a little challenging,” Lemense said. “Trying to find alternate routes to the office and whatnot … but it’s nice to have (the camp still in the district).”
Rio Vista typically provides before- and after-school care, but has expanded its hours to accommodate the walkout. About 300 students were registered to attend Rio Vista and two other locations, reaching their max capacity, a Peoria city official said.
Lemense said she thinks most parents support the Red for Ed movement, but she hopes the walkout does not extend for a long period of time without some accommodations.
“I hope they extend the camps,” she said. “And I know they’ll have to extend it into the summer. … But sometimes it gets to a point where push comes to shove, you have to do what you have to do.”
Red for Ed is a grassroots movement led by Arizona Educators United, and is part of a national outcry from teachers and education advocates about low salaries. Protesters in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma have seen success after similar strikes by educators.
Cronkite News reporters Sydney Isenberg, Tynin Fries and Nicole Gimpl contributed to this article.
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