'Glad it passed:' Arizona lawmakers approve big teacher raises, could end 5-day strike

PHOENIX -- Arizona lawmakers pulled an all-nighter Thursday to enact a budget that provides big raises for many of the state's striking teachers, potentially ending the five-day walkout that kept more than a million public school students out of the classroom.

The Senate passed the pay raises just before dawn, and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey immediately signed off on the plan to give teachers a 9 percent raise in the fall and 5 percent in each of the next two years. A 1 percent raise had already been approved, so the teachers will get a 20 percent overall increase over four years.

The striking teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, kept watch at the state Capitol all night, packing the House and Senate galleries during the debate and holding a candlelight vigil in a courtyard.

Organizers of the strike had called for classes to resume Thursday if the budget passed. But many large districts ended up canceling school for a sixth straight day as the lawmakers worked through the night.

One of the state's largest districts, in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, announced shortly after the budget passed that schools would reopen Friday. Other districts seemed likely to follow later in the day.

A decade of education cuts had sliced deeply into the Arizona schools.

The funding package fell short of demands for more overall school funding. Teachers sought a return to pre-recession funding levels, regular raises, competitive pay for support staff and a pledge not to adopt any tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

Ducey said in a statement that teachers had "earned a raise, and this plan delivers." The pay increases will cost about $300 million for the coming year alone.

Phoenix-area teacher Rebecca Wilson was among those who camped out in the Capitol overnight.

"I'm glad it passed and we'll get something because I'm a single mom of three kids, but it's not enough," she told Phoenix-area radio station KTAR.

The budget package also provides the state's schools will a partial restoration of nearly $400 million in recession-era cuts, with a promise to restore the rest in five years. Other cuts remain in place.

Minority Democrats mainly voted against the budget plan, drawing criticism from Republicans.

"You know, talk is pretty cheap — it's your vote that counts," Republican Rep. Anthony Kern said. "If Republicans voted with Democrats tonight, you would be walking away with zero."

Democratic Rep. Reginald Bolding said Republicans cut education budgets for years, leading to the crisis.

"It's amazing that we sit here and we try to call ourselves a hero after we've set the house on fire," Bolding said. "You can't set a house on fire, call 911 and claim to be a hero. And that's what this body has done."

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 teachers or 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 Rep. Kelly Townsend said. "You should not be able to do that to the people of this state because you want funding."

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, a Democrat, tried and failed to win support for an amendment that would mandate a 250:1 ratio for students to school counselors. Epstein said the bill could help prevent suicide and bullying and improve academic performance.

"Not only is school not fun anymore, but it's scary," she said.

Freeing up the extra money required cuts and maneuvers across several parts of the budgets, including raids on special funds like one that helps clean up pollution from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks.

But much of the added cash comes from an unexpected boost in revenue that appeared in the first quarter of the year because the economy has finally heated up. As of March 31, the state took in more than $330 million more than expected in tax revenue.