Phoenix: The Arizona governor signed a plan on Thursday to give striking teachers a 20 per cent pay raise, ending their six-day walkout after a dramatic all-night legislative session and sending a majority of the state's 1 million public school students back to the classroom.
Teachers did not get everything they wanted, but they won substantial gains from reluctant lawmakers.
"The educators have solved the education crisis! They've changed the course of Arizona" Noah Karvelis of Arizona Educators United shouted to several thousand cheering teachers. "The change happens with us!"
Teachers crowd the lobby of the Arizona Senate as Arizona legislature debate a budget negotiated by majority Republicans and GOP Governor Doug Ducey
The Arizona walkout is part of a simmering national rebellion over low teacher pay. The movement started in West Virginia, where a strike resulted in a raise, and spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky and, most recently, Colorado.
Governor Doug Ducey's signature awarded teachers a 9 per cent raise in the fall and 5 per cent in each of the next two years. The 20 per cent also includes a 1 per cent raise granted last year.
Hours after Ducey acted, strike organisers called for an end to the walkout. Most schools stayed closed on Thursday, except for a handful that managed to reopen shortly after the pay raises passed. Some districts planned to reopen on Friday, with others likely to resume classes next week.
The Senate approved the raises just before dawn as hundreds of red-shirted teachers followed the proceedings from the lobby, many sitting on the cold stone floor.
Teachers crowd the lobby of the Arizona Senate as Arizona legislature debates the budget.
The night before, the teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, held a candlelight vigil in a courtyard outside the original neoclassical Capitol building. They stood together with their right hands over their hearts and sang "America the Beautiful."
Wrapped in blankets or sleeping bags, they napped on the ground or in folding metal chairs, occasionally using cellphones to monitor an online video stream of the legislative debate in the chambers.
Ducey said the teachers had earned a raise and praised the legislation as "a real win" for both teachers and students. The pay increases will cost about $US300 million for the coming year alone.
Some teachers returned to the Capitol on Thursday as lawmakers debated the rest of the state's $US10.4 billion budget plan. Among them was Wes Oswald, a third- grade teacher from Tucson who made the two-hour drive for a sixth day.
Oswald said the budget still does not address serious issues such as the need for higher per-pupil spending, raises for support staff and a smaller-student-to-counselor ratio.
Teachers must still fight for those problems to be addressed, Oswald said, adding that "the worst thing would be for this movement to dissolve."
Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said educators should now focus on a campaign for a November ballot measure that would seek more education funding from an income tax increase on the wealthiest taxpayers.
"The budget is a significant investment, but it falls far short" of what the movement demanded, Thomas said.
Helen Hoffman, a counselor in the Phoenix Union High School District, said she was "excited" about the end of the strike.
"I'm worried about my students. I'm ready to go back," she said.
Elizabeth Ruiz, an eighth-grade math teacher in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, expects her school to reopen Friday.
"It's middle-schoolers, so it's a tough age. But I'm ready to see them," she said.
At its peak, school closures impacted more than 840,000 Arizona students, according to an analysis from The Arizona Republic that tallied up at least 100 school districts and charter schools that were closing.
Democratic Representative Reginald Bolding urged lawmakers not to congratulate themselves for easing the same crisis they created.
"You can't set a house on fire, call 911 [emergency services] and claim to be a hero. And that's what this body has done," Bolding said.
One Republican lawmaker upset about the strike proposed amendments to make it illegal for teachers to espouse political beliefs at work, to require the attorney general to investigate schools that allow political activity and to bar schools from closing during a walkout.
"There are hundreds of families contacting me that are harmed financially, occupationally," an emotional Representative Kelly Townsend said.
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