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'No Budget, No School' - Arizona teachers pressure lawmakers for deal

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Chanting “No Budget, No School”, Arizona teachers on Wednesday demanded lawmakers approve a budget deal with a 20 percent pay hike before ending a week-long walkout, saying the spending package fell far short of their demands.

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As lawmakers prepared to work into the night on Wednesday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said he would sign legislation to end the historic, statewide protest that has kept most of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students out of class since April 26.

Walkout leaders said on Tuesday teachers would return to work on Thursday if a budget was approved.

The week’s marches by tens of thousands were the largest statewide educator walkout in U.S. history but looked set to win only about a third of the school funding teachers were seeking, organizers said.

The protests are part of a national teacher uprising 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.

Ducey’s “20x2020” plan raises pay 20 percent over two years for teachers in Arizona, 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 was cut from their budgets since the recession.

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

“We should be done before Saturday. With that in mind, I want to see teachers back to work tomorrow,” Townsend, a critic of the #RedForEd teachers movement, said in a Facebook post. She later said she did not mean to say legislators would be debating the budget until Saturday.

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

“We will still return to our classrooms if the budget passes by Thursday,” Sheenae Shannon, a spokeswoman for walkout organizer Arizona Education Association, said by phone.

Seven of Arizona’s 10 largest school districts have told parents they will reopen their schools on Thursday, the Arizona Republic newspaper reported.

As well as the pay rise, 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.

Walkout organizers such as Noah Karvelis 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.

“The war is not over but we’ve won an important battle to move the legislature this far,” Karvelis said.

Reporting by David Schwartz and Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Chang