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Hundreds of Arizona teachers protest low pay at state Capitol

(KTAR Photo/Griselda Zetino)
LISTEN: Alexis Aguirre, Teacher at Encanto Elementary

PHOENIX — Hundreds of Arizona teachers descended on the state Capitol on Wednesday for a demonstration where they demanded higher pay and increased funding for public education.

The grassroots group Arizona Educators United and a group called Save Our Schools Arizona, which forced a vote on a school voucher expansion, unveiled their specific calls for action and demands for teacher pay increases and boosts to other school funding at the protest. Events were also planned in Tucson and other cities.

The demonstrators all mostly wore red. The signature color of the #RedforEd campaign started after a teacher strike in West Virginia wound up securing a pay raise. Many toted signs and donned stickers that read “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the co-founders of Save Our Schools Arizona, told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the demands included a 20 percent raise for teachers, competitive pay for all school employees, restoring per student funding to 2008 levels, enacting a permanent salary structure that allows for predictable raises and to keep working on funding until Arizona reaches the national average.

“Listen to us, invest in education,” she said, directing her message to Gov. Doug Ducey and other state lawmakers.

Penich-Thacker added that the calls for action included the Arizona PTA encouraging parents and family members of Arizona students to become active in civic engagement and Save Our Schools Arizona calling on residents to learn about vouchers, oppose them and commit to carrying petitions this summer to stop the voucher expansion or bring new money into schools.

A spokesperson for Ducey issued a statement to The Arizona Republic in response to Wednesday’s demonstration. The statement said that Arizona has “made progress” in regard to school funding, but recognized that more needs to be done.

“We will continue each year to put more resources into K-12 education to better serve our teachers and students,” part of the statement read.

Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers in Arizona rank 50th in earnings nationally and high school teachers rank 49th.

National Education Association data showed Arizona teachers are paid around $47,000 annually, compared to a national average of about $58,000.

Alexis Aguirre, a second-grade teacher in the Osborn School District in Phoenix, told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Mac and Gaydos that both the students and the teachers deserve better than 50th in the nation for public funding.

“We need to do right by our kids and we need to do right by our teachers,” she said.

Aguirre said she has heard a ton of personal stories from teachers who say the low pay is affecting them. Aguirre herself recently had a baby and said she had no paid maternity leave to spend time with her newborn.

“Teachers are put in a bind, whether or not they will stay at home with their babies or come to work because they rely on the few hundred dollars that we get,” Aguirre said.

The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association issued a report in December that described a “severe” teacher shortage, with nearly 2,000 vacant positions statewide.

But Aguirre stressed that there is not a teacher shortage, but a teacher retention crisis.

“Our state government needs to fund teachers so they don’t have to choose,” she said.

Arizona Educators United has held Capitol protests since early March. A sickout last week by Pendergast Elementary School District teachers shuttered most schools in the west Phoenix and Glendale districts.

KTAR News’ Griselda Zetino and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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