Teachers turn out by thousands at Olympia rally

Tens of thousands of teachers rallying for pay increases and smaller classroom sizes converged on Olympia Tuesday as Gov. Gary Locke defended his proposals to cut state spending in the face of a $2.4 billion budget shortfall.

Organized by the 76,000-member Washington Education Association (WEA), the rally left more than 100 school districts across the state – including many in the South Sound – closed as about 25,000 protesters marched on the capital.

Many wore blue union ponchos emblazoned with the words, “Keep the Commitment!”

WEA officials said 19,000 of the ponchos were printed for the occasion, and all were handed out early in the day.

The rally, which had been organized months ago, took on new urgency for teachers after Locke proposed suspending two voter initiatives mandating yearly cost-of-living wage increase for teachers and more state money for reducing classroom sizes.

Initiative 732 grants teachers annual cost-of-living increases and Initiative 728 reduces classroom size and pays for various other improvements. Both were approved by voters two years ago.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Locke defended his decision to make the cuts as one that would avoid a general tax hike for state residents.

It was a contentious start to the legislative session, which opened on Monday, as lawmakers vowed to close the budget shortfall amid a particularly strong anti-tax climate among voters.

The 56th Legislative Session opened at noon in cramped, temporary head-quarters as the Capitol building undergoes a $100 million renovation.

Addressing lawmakers, Locke said the group faces “a lot of difficult choices and painful cuts.”

Teachers and their supporters have promised a sustained effort to get the governor to fund the two initiatives passed by voters.