Arizona teachers vote to walk out on Thursday, April 26 over education funding

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The majority of teachers voted to walk out on April 26. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The majority of teachers voted to walk out on April 26. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Joe Thomas, president of the AEA, said 78 percent of the teachers voted for a walkout. He didn't say how long the walkout would last. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Joe Thomas, president of the AEA, said 78 percent of the teachers voted for a walkout. He didn't say how long the walkout would last. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
The vote is non-binding, so teachers don't have to participate in the walkout if they don't want to. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The vote is non-binding, so teachers don't have to participate in the walkout if they don't want to. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

After weeks of protests, Arizona teachers have decided to take their demonstrations to an unprecedented level in the state.

The Arizona Education Association announced on Thursday night teachers voted to participate in a walkout over the lack of funding for the public education system in Arizona. Cheers roared from a group of teachers.

Leaders said the walkout will start on Thursday, April 26. The walk-ins will continue on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We can no longer let the status quo go unchanged," said Noah Karvelis, a music teacher who helped organize Arizona Educators United, the grass-roots group that pushed the Red for Ed movement.

Parents should contact the school districts about how they will handle the walkout and if classes will still be held. 

Joe Thomas, president of the AEA, said 78 percent of the teachers voted for a walkout. About 57,000 teachers submitted ballots. He didn't say how long the walkout would last.

"Educators have delivered a strong message tonight," Thomas said. "This is undeniably a mandate for action."

[RELATED: Arizona teachers to announce whether they will walk out]

Gov. Doug Ducey tweeted on Thursday that if the schools shut down, "our kids are the ones who lose out."  

The vote is non-binding, so teachers don't have to participate in the walkout if they don't want to.

Teachers on both sides of the walkout vote have shared concerns. It could pose child care difficulties for thousands of families and leave teachers at risk of losing their credentials. How a strike could play out in more than 200 public school districts will vary but could leave hourly workers like custodians without their paychecks.

Beth Simek, president of the influential Arizona PTA, she feels the pain of teachers who are torn. Some are concerned about the effect on support staff and what kids might do without school, she said.

"I know they're toiling with that," Simek said. "I also know they need these raises."

The move comes despite Gov. Ducey proposed a plan that would give teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020. The plan would shift millions of dollars away from programs for the raises, which are projected to cost around $650 million a year.

[READ MORE: Gov. Doug Ducey proposes teacher pay increase of 9% this year, 20% by 2020]

However, teachers in a grass-roots group said that plan doesn't address other needs, including pay raises for all support staff and a return of school funding to 2008 levels.

Karvelis didn't say how long the walkout would last but the teachers want some sort of action on their demands.

"The governor released a plan that's falling apart as we speak," said Thomas. "They want real revenue streams brought into Arizona and the good news is, the Arizona Legislature is still in session so they can fix that in just a few days."

AEA said they have reserved the capitol lawn for five days starting Friday in case teachers do vote to strike.

"The worst possible thing we could do is not take action right now," said Karvelis.

Dozens of school boards have come out with public support for #RedForEd. 

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona schools in crisis]

Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers actually rank 49th in earnings and high school teachers 48th.

[INTERACTIVE MAP: Average teacher salaries nationwide]

Ducey's plan

Ducey says the average teacher earned $48,372 last year and his proposal would see a nearly $10,000 increase by 2020.

But there are concerns about where the money will come from. Ducey has said a lot of the funding will come from projected growth in tax revenue due to his rosy picture of the economy. There will also be cuts to a couple of programs and moving funds around from other areas of the budget.

[READ MORE: Ducey's teacher pay plan means less funding for other programs]

Teachers and Democrats have said the revenue projections may be overly optimistic and believe the raises should be paid for from other revenue resources, like eliminating corporate tax breaks.

But Republicans and Gov. Ducey said they would oppose tax increases. One source of new revenue would be $8 million in new lottery funds from Keno gaming.

The Arizona PTA pulled its support for the proposal, saying its analysis showed the finances were not realistic. An education advocacy group, Save Our Schools Arizona, said it's worried the plan isn't a "sustainable or comprehensive" way to reinvest in schools.

Legislative budget analysts this week predicted a $265 million deficit in 2020 if the governor's plan is approved. Ducey's office strongly disputes that analysis, saying much of the funding comes from revenue increases.

"Our economy is growing, and rather than government banking away the taxpayers' money, let's get these dollars to our teachers," Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said in an email Thursday.

[RELATED: Arizona teachers call strike vote, despite raise plan]

Walk out impact on districts

It's unclear how the school districts will respond to the walk out. Arizona is a right-to-work state, where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory.

The association said it has informed its 20,000 members of the risks of a walkout because of a 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion. It said no law bans a teacher strike but that a statewide strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.

[RELATED: Arizona teachers call strike vote, despite raise plan]

According to the Arizona Department of Education, districts are required to meet a certain amount of hours throughout the year, depending on the grade. Kindergarteners need just 365 hours while middle schoolers near 1,000 hours. Districts would need to add hours or days to make up time missed.

If a school misses a day of instruction due to a weather event or something else, the district must apply for an exception by the ADE.

But the ADE told Arizona's Family that it doesn't see legal grounds for granting an exception for a walk out.

At Mesa Public Schools, the state's largest district, leaders previously told staff members that if a walkout is called, schools will close and extracurricular activities would be suspended.

Short-term contract support personnel and hourly employees, such as custodial workers and bus drivers, would not work and would not be paid, while certified employees would keep receiving paychecks, district guidance said.

[READ MORE: Possibility of Arizona teacher strike creates some confusion]

Students wouldn't be able to access buildings on campuses, and any school days missed would be made up at year's end, Superintendent Michael Cowan wrote to teachers.

[RELATED: Would the public support a teacher strike in Arizona?]

The Dysart School District west of Phoenix would "make every effort" to avoid closing schools," but they would have to shut down if too few staff members show up, Superintendent Gail Pletnick has told parents.

Sara Bresnahan, a spokeswoman for the Phoenix Elementary School District, said a walkout is "uncharted territory" but its schools would try to stay open for as many students as possible.

"Some kids will be coming to school and really need a place to be," she said.

The movement started in West Virginia, where a strike garnered a raise, and spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky and most recently Colorado.

Nancy Maglio, a teacher at Magee Middle School in southern Arizona's Tucson Unified School District, said teachers are motivated to walk out and demand funding because of what it means for their students.

"None of us went to school, none of us spent money on tuition, on books, none of us spend our time and our energy to not care," she said. "We went into a field where caring is mandatory."

While Maglio voted in support of the walkout, it wasn't without conflicted feelings.

"I am eagerly anticipating the walkout, but I'm not eagerly anticipating leaving my students," she said.

[INFOGRAPHIC: Average Teacher Salaries by State]

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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