PHOENIX – Tens of thousands of Red for Ed protesters marched to the Arizona Capitol on Thursday in a historic demonstration against years of education budget cuts, with protesters demanding higher teacher pay and increased classroom funding.
“I’m here today because my classrooms need it,” said protester Lindsay Nash, a special education teacher in Surprise. “You can only tape textbooks together for so long before they literally don’t stay together anymore.”
The movement’s organizers put out specific demands ahead of the march, including a 20-percent salary increase, restoration of education funding to 2008 levels, extension of salary increases to support staff, development of a permanent structure for annual raises and a freeze on future tax cuts until per-pupil funding matches the national average.
Just before 11 a.m., red-dressed protesters began marching from Chase Field west on Jefferson Street, drumming and chanting, “Red for Ed.” Many brought hats and umbrellas to combat temperatures nearing 90.
More people arrived even as the march started, with protesters arriving from the light rail and driving cars with “Red for Ed” painted on the windows. The Arizona Department of Public Safety estimated that 40,000 people attended.
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Alicia Ehinger, who teaches first grade at Alta Loma Elementary School in Peoria, said she was both excited and nervous about Thursday’s march.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster the last few days,” Ehinger said. “We’re doing this for our students. Arizona kids deserve so much more. … Every single child can be anything they want to be with the help of us.”
At least 75 percent of Arizona’s 1.1 million schoolchildren are in districts that have shut down during the walkout. As for teachers, organizers said 100,000 of them took part in “walk-in” demonstrations before classes over the past three weeks.
Ehinger switched school districts this year to be closer to her family, which includes five children. The move resulted in a large pay decrease, which is what spurred her to action Thursday.
“Just realizing my kids don’t have what they really need, I had to go out and buy a lot of stuff for the classroom that was not provided at our Title I school,” Ehinger said. “We’re going to do what’s right for our kids.”
She said one of her older children was babysitting while she protested.
Ehinger is thankful her school district supports the Red for Ed movement, and she remains optimistic that the state government will ultimately work with teachers.
Many school districts encouraged their employees to use personal time or sick days when protesting, but legal experts said it’s unlikely for a school district to take disciplinary action over the walkout, especially when many school superintendents have voiced support for the movement.
“A resolution to this would be a sustainable funding source that can continue growth within education to make sure all the kids are taken care of, all the facilities are taken care of, all the teachers are taken care of,” said Justin McLellan, a history teacher from Ironwood High School in Glendale who attended the march.
McLellan plans to stop teaching next year, but he said he is concerned about the education trends in Arizona going forward.
“As my kids go through the education system, who are going to be the mentors and leaders for my kids?” he said.
Early Thursday, Leslie Lemense brought her 10-year-old daughter to a camp at Rio Vista Recreation Center in Peoria because the girl’s school, Lake Pleasant Elementary School, had closed.
“It’s a little challenging,” Lemense said. “Trying to find alternate routes to the office and whatnot … but it’s nice to have (the camp still in the district).”
Rio Vista typically provides before- and after-school care, but has expanded its hours to accommodate the walkout. About 300 students were registered to attend Rio Vista and two other locations, reaching their max capacity, a Peoria city official said.
Lemense said she thinks most parents support the Red for Ed movement, but she hopes the walkout does not extend for a long period of time without some accommodations.
“I hope they extend the camps,” she said. “And I know they’ll have to extend it into the summer. … But sometimes it gets to a point where push comes to shove, you have to do what you have to do.”
Red for Ed is a grassroots movement led by Arizona Educators United, and is part of a national outcry from teachers and education advocates about low salaries. Protesters in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma have seen success after similar strikes by educators.
Cronkite News reporters Sydney Isenberg, Tynin Fries and Nicole Gimpl contributed to this article.