PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona teachers and school employees have voted overwhelmingly to walk out next week to demand increased education funding and better pay.
The announcement came late Thursday night after three days of voting by school employees. Of 57,000 votes cast, 78 percent were in favor of a walkout.
“Arizona educators have delivered a strong message tonight,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, during a news conference. He said the vote showed “overwhelming support for walking out of their schools for their students, their schools and their colleagues.”
The walkout is scheduled for Thursday, April 26 after three days of “walk-ins” to give schools, students and families time to prepare.
Walk-ins call for teachers and school employees to rally outside of school before classes begin.
“We need to bring the change that our educators and our students and our families in this state need,” said Noah Karvelis, a teacher and an organizer with Arizona Educators United.
Karvelis declined to estimate how many days the walkout may last.
“We need to see a change,” Karvelis said.
Arizona elementary school teachers rank last in the nation for pay, and its high school teachers rank 49th of the 50 states, according to a study released last year by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.
Average pay for Arizona elementary school teachers is $40,860 per year, and $46,070 for secondary teachers.
The vote was held after weeks of protests and walk-ins by teachers. The protested culminated in Gov. Doug Ducey announcing last week a plan to offer teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020.
“Our economy has been growing, we have surplus revenues and we’re going to put these toward teacher pay,” Ducey said on Thursday, April 12. “That’ll be the commitment. We’ll have to make other adjustments.”
The plan did not resolve educators’ concerns about funding improvements to crumbling school infrastructure, updating technology or raises for support staff. Nor did it calm fears of how the state would find the revenue to pay up.
A federal judge found in March that Arizona had illegally used $344 million from its state land trust to fund schools, without congressional approval.
“Every single day, every single student in Arizona is being underfunded,” Karvelis said.
Ducey said in a statement that he is committed to keeping “teachers teaching, and kids learning.”
“No one wants to see teachers strike. If schools shut down, our kids are the ones who lose out,” the Republican governor wrote on Twitter. “We have worked side by side with the education community to develop a sustainable plan to give teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020.”
Arizona House Democrats called on Republicans in the Legislature to step up and address education needs.
“We call on superintendents and school boards to support their teachers and support staff during this time,” Arizona House Democratic Leader Rebecca Rios said in a statement. “And we call on Governor Ducey and our Republican colleagues to come to the table to find a sustainable way to pay for a 20 percent pay increase.”
The plan for a walkout comes after a similar protest in West Virginia garnered teachers there a 5 percent raise after a nine-day walkout. The West Virginia protest was followed by similar actions in Kentucky and Oklahoma.
“Legislators need to reinvest dollars,” Thomas said. “Let’s have the people that can afford to pay, pay.”
Arizona teachers who participate in the walkout may face consequences. While there is no law banning teachers from walking off the job, a 1971 opinion by then-Arizona Attorney General Gary Nelson said it should be considered a resignation and could result in revocation of teaching licenses.
“Under the common law, strikes by public employees are forbidden,” Nelson wrote.
Mesa Public Schools, the largest school district in Arizona, indicated it will close its schools for the duration of the walkout.
“This difficult decision is based on ensuring the safety of our students,” Superintendent Michael Cowan said in a letter to parents and staff.