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Hundreds of Peoria teachers gather at state Capitol for higher wages

LISTEN: Beth Lewis, Teacher and Chair of Save Our Schools Arizona

PHOENIX — Several hundred teachers and supporters from a Phoenix suburb gathered at the Arizona Capitol on Monday to call for higher wages and better conditions in schools.

Noah Karvelis, a spokesman for the group behind the #RedForEd initiative, Arizona Teachers United, said approximately 700 teachers and staff from the Peoria Unified School District participated in the gathering.

Karvelis told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the protest was organized by #RedForEd members from Peoria. The #RedForEd campaign started after a teacher strike in West Virginia wound up securing a pay raise.

Photos of the protest showed large groups of people donned almost all in red as they called on lawmakers from across the state, including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, to do something about educators’ low wages.

Monday was an early release day for all elementary and high schools in the district, according to a district calendar. That meant that students were done with classes between 12:20 p.m. and 1:40 p.m., depending on what time they started school.

The protest also came nearly one week after thousands of Arizona teachers gathered on the Capitol to again demand for higher pay and increased funding for public education.

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.

Arizona Educators United and Save Our Schools Arizona unveiled during the Wednesday protest their specific calls for action and demands, which included a 20 percent raise for teachers, competitive pay for all school employees and restoring per student funding to 2008 levels.

The demonstrators all mostly wore red and many toted signs and donned stickers that read “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

Karvelis told The New York Times on Monday that the group was “going to continue to escalate our actions. Whether that ultimately ends in a strike? That’s certainly a possibility. We just want to win.”

Beth Lewis, a teacher and the chair of Save Our Schools Arizona, told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Chad Benson that teachers across the state are planning a statewide “walk-in” on April 11, during which community members, kids and parents will come together and stand together before school that day.

“Teachers are getting desperate, they’ve had enough,” Lewis said. “They don’t feel like they’re being heard.”

Kentucky, Oklahoma teachers also protest low wages

The walkout came on the same day as the Kentucky Capitol filled with teachers protesting pension changes and demanding generous school funding and thousands of Oklahoma educators walked out of their classrooms.

Many Oklahoma schools were closed Monday, and districts announced plans to stay shut into Tuesday with teacher demonstrations expected to last a second day.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation last week granting teachers pay raises of about $6,100, or 15 to 18 percent. But some educators – who haven’t seen a pay increase in 10 years – say that isn’t good enough and walked out.

The state’s largest teachers union has demanded a $10,000 pay raise for educators over three years, $5,000 for support personnel and a $75 million increase in funding this year.

“If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps,” said Rae Lovelace, a single mom and a third-grade teacher at Leedey Public Schools in northwest Oklahoma. Lovelace, among many teachers who moonlight for extra pay, works 30 to 40 hours a week at a second job teaching online courses for a charter school.

Oklahoma ranks 47th among states and the District of Columbia in public school revenue per student while its average teacher salary of $45,276 ranked 49th before the latest raises, according to the most recent statistics from the National Education Association.

In Frankfort, Kentucky, teachers and other school employees chanted “Stop the war on public education.”

“We’re madder than hornets, and the hornets are swarming today,” said Claudette Green, a retired teacher and principal.

Schools across Kentucky were closed, due either to spring break or to allow teachers and other school employees to attend the rally.

Amid a chorus of chants from teachers rallying in the Capitol, Kentucky lawmakers considered a new state budget that includes higher spending for public education.

Budget negotiators unveiled a spending plan Monday that includes increased spending for the main funding formula for K-12 schools and restored money for school buses that the state’s Republican governor had proposed eliminating.

The additional education spending would be paid for by a 6 percent sales tax on a host of services that had previously been tax-free. The spending and taxing proposals cleared the Senate on Monday and went to the House, which was expected to vote on the measures later Monday.

Language arts teacher Lesley Buckner was reluctant to give lawmakers much credit.

“We’re sending a message,” she said. “If we continue to stay united, they cannot turn away from us, they cannot turn their backs on us.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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