More than 1.4 million public school students were missing classes today as tens of thousands teachers in Arizona and Colorado walked out in a powerful display of frustration over a decade of education funding cuts they say have piled up to billions of dollars.
Arizona teachers went on strike after voting overwhelmingly last week to take the drastic move in hopes it will pressure lawmakers into giving them a 20 percent pay hike, fork over a $1 billion in education funding and up the salaries of school support staff.
Public educators in Arizona rank 46th in the nation in teacher pay, earning about $12,000 less than the national average of $59,660, according to a 2018 report by the National Education Association.
In Colorado, up to 10,000 educators have taken personal leave to rally at their state Capitol in Denver today and tomorrow and lobby legislators to boost funding for education there, which they say has been slashed by a whopping $6.6 billion over the last nine years. The teachers are also demanding no new corporate tax breaks until education funding is restored.
"We are fed up at this point," Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, told ABC News this week.
The Arizona and Colorado teacher labor actions are just the latest in a wave of educator revolts ignited by West Virginia teachers who went on a nine-day strike earlier this year and won a five percent pay raise in March.
Since the West Virginia wildcat strike, teachers in Oklahoma went on a nine-day strike of their own, persuading legislators to up their annual pay an average of $6,000, give support staff a raise and increase funding for education by nearly $500 million. Earlier this month, Kentucky educators walked out of class angry over a pension reform bill they said was passed by legislators without their input and signed into law by their governor despite their vociferous objections.
Most of the work actions have occurred in red states where legislatures and governors' offices are dominated by Republicans. Colorado, where Democrats occupy the governor's office and hold a majority in the state Assembly, is the exception.
More than 30 school districts in Arizona canceled classes today and may be forced to do the same in days to come as 30,000 to 50,000 striking teachers formed picket lines and threatened to stay out of school for as long as it takes to get lawmakers to meet their demands.
An estimated 840,000 public school students in Arizona are missing classes after numerous school district shut down schools because they couldn't find enough substitute teachers to fill in. The same problem occurred in Colorado, where classes were called off for an estimated 600,000 students.
"We have a fight in front of us," Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, told teachers during a rally on Wednesday. "And we want the parents to understand that this fight is for your child. How it ends is up to the governor and up to those legislative leaders."
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has already proposed boosting teacher pay 20 percent by 2020, but educators are concerned over how he plans to pay for it. They say their protest is more than just a paycheck issue and want lawmakers to restore $1 billion in lost funding for education since the national 2008 financial crisis.
"Without a doubt, teachers are some of the biggest difference-makers in the lives of Arizona children," Ducey said in a Twitter post this morning. "They need to be respected, and rewarded, for the work they do -- and Arizona can do better on this front.
"We’ve all been listening -- but now, it's time to act," Ducey added. "My number one focus right now is passing a 20% pay raise for Arizona teachers. This raise is earned, and it is deserved... To parents, I understand the pain & pressure caused by today’s strike. I'm working to get this 20% raise passed."
In Colorado, teachers wearing #RedforEd T-shirts and toting signs reading "Make Education Great Again" and "Can You Hear Us Now" swarmed the state Capitol Denver.
"We're here today because of our students," Amie Baca-Oehlert, a high school counselor and vice president of the Colorado Education Association, told ABC News outside the Capitol building. "They certainly deserve better. We have one of the fastest growing economies in the country. We need to do better for our students."
The teachers say Colorado spends about $2,700 less than the national per-pupil average of about $12,000 a year.
According to the National Education Association report, Colorado teachers' pay ranked 31st in the nation. Colorado teachers earn an average of $53,768 annually or about $6,500 below the national average.
"We have teachers working two to three jobs," Baca-Oehlert said. "We have school districts where they've cut mental health supports like counselors, social workers, psychologists. They've cut art, music, PE (physical education)."