May 3, 2018 / 7:54 AM / 6 months ago

Arizona governor signs bill to boost teachers' wages amid strike

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona’s governor signed a budget bill on Thursday that will boost teachers’ wages by 20 percent over the next three years, after dozens of the state’s school districts canceled classes as part of a strike to demand pay raises.

The U.S. and Arizona flags flutter in the wind in Fountain Hills, Arizona, U.S. on September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Arduengo

Tens of thousands of Arizona teachers, whose pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year, have held a week-long walkout. It was the largest teachers’ strike in U.S. history and has kept most of state’s 1.1 million public school students out of class.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state legislature worked through the night to pass the $10.4 billion budget, while outside, hundreds of red-clad teachers rallied overnight, local media reported.

Although the teachers’ raise is now enacted, districts in Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe, along with more than three dozen districts throughout the state, had notified parents that classes were canceled Thursday, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

Teachers and supporters rallied at the state capitol again on Thursday to keep pressure on lawmakers who “aren’t getting the job done,” Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said in a joint statement with the National Education Association.

Nevertheless, he said the teachers would return to school “knowing that we have achieved something truly historic.” It was not immediately clear if they would return to classrooms on Friday.

Protests in the state were part of a national teacher action that began in West Virginia and spread to other Republican-controlled states, including Kentucky and Oklahoma.

$600 MILLION ALLOCATED

The bill allocates more than $600 million for salary increases, meaning teachers would get raises of nearly 10 percent this year and about 5 percent in each of the following two years.

“Arizona teachers have earned a raise, and this plan delivers,” Republican Governor Doug Ducey said in a statement issued as he signed the bill.

“This plan not only provides our teachers with a 20 percent increase in pay by school year 2020, it also provides millions in flexible dollars to improve our public education system,” he added.

The budget also includes about $371 million over five years to offset cuts imposed on education spending during the U.S. recession that ended in 2009, starting with $100 million this fiscal year, according to state officials. Teachers say $1.1 billion has been cut from their budgets since the recession.

State Senate President Steve Yarbrough said education was the top priority for lawmakers.

“Teachers can return knowing that the legislature heard their concerns and delivered the pay increase they deserve,” Yarbrough said in a statement.

Republican House Speaker J.D. Mesnard called the budget “fiscally sound” because it boosts education funding without raising taxes.

Reporting by David Schwartz and Andrew Hay; additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Keith Coffman in Denver; editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Chang

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