By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of teachers in Colorado and Arizona rallied for a second day on Friday to demand higher pay and school funding as a revolt by U.S. public school teachers spread westward.
Waving placards such as “Teachers Just Want To Have Fund$,” educators and their supporters descended on the state capital in Denver to demand an increase in school budgets.
The Rocky Mountain state is $2,700 below the national average in per-pupil funding even though Colorado is one of the fastest-growing state economies in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Protesters are demanding the state begin to repay $6.6 billion in funding withheld since 2009 as the state recovered from the recession, address a shortfall of 3,000 teachers and adequately staff schools with counselors, social workers and special educators.
Encouraged by similar protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, organizers in Colorado said the protests would send a message to political leaders about their dissatisfaction.
“We have educators working two or three jobs to make ends meet,” said Kerrie Dallman, head of the Colorado Education Association, a statewide federation of teachers’ unions organizing the two-day walkout.
“Teachers are spending $656 (a year) out of their own pocket to buy supplies like paper and dry erase markers,” said Dallman, a high-school social studies teacher from Jefferson County.
The Colorado action forced the state’s two largest school districts, in Denver and neighboring Jefferson County, to cancel classes for hundreds of thousands of students.
Democratic lawmakers who control Colorado’s lower house back the teachers but Republicans, with a Senate majority, have balked at spending more on education, saying funding needs to go to infrastructure like roads.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has vowed to work with the teachers and on Friday met with a small group of educators, according to protest organizers.
In Arizona, thousands rallied in Phoenix for an immediate 20-percent increase to teacher salaries, which are among the lowest in the country, and restoring education funding to 2008 levels.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, has offered a cumulative 20 percent pay rise by 2020. He has pledged $371 million over the next five years for school infrastructure, curriculum, school buses and technology.
“What I’m dealing with now are our legislators, Republicans and Democrats, so we can get that passed,” Ducey told NBC affiliate news station 12News on Thursday.
The vast majority of Arizona’s more than 200 public school districts, with roughly 1.1 million students, canceled classes for Thursday and Friday.
(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; writing by Andrew Hay, editing by G Crosse)