SALT LAKE CITY — Teachers marched from downtown up Capitol Hill Friday afternoon to demand the Utah State Legislature invest more in education.
Carrying signs demanding "WTF - Where's the Funding?" and "Fund our Future," members of the Salt Lake City Education Association marched up State Street, chanting all the way. When they reached the rotunda, they were joined by members of the Utah Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union -- who called for lawmakers to invest more in public education.
"We have been asking for better teaching and learning conditions for years," said Amadou Niang, a teacher at Horizonte School in Salt Lake City. "The needle doesn’t seem to be moving, so we felt that we need to do something."
The Utah Highway Patrol estimates as many as 2,000 participated in the march to the Capitol. The Salt Lake City Education Association called for a walkout to rally its members to march. But teachers insisted it wasn't so much a "walkout" as a "walk for better conditions for students and educators."
As they marched, teachers complained to FOX 13 about overcrowded classrooms, a lack of school supplies, no support and a lack of substitute teachers when they fall ill. They said Utah is dead last in education funding in the nation.
"This is unacceptable. This is for our students and our future," said Gloria Shirley. "They need services, counselors, para-educators, lower class sizes. That’s why we’re walking."
But legislative leaders insist education is a top funding priority.
"We’ve put a lot of new money into public education. Is it enough? Probably not," said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. "But have we done everything we can? Absolutely."
Salt Lake City school teachers and the UEA said they want the legislature to give them a 6% weighted pupil unit funding this year. That's a formula for money given from the state to school districts and then used for educator salaries and class resources. Currently, it's at 4%.
"In order for us to really make a difference for our students, we need six percent," Heidi Matthews, the president of the UEA, told FOX 13.
Speaker Wilson said the legislature has increased the WPU in recent years "significantly more than we’ve increased wages for state employees." He told reporters on Friday that the legislature has invested more over the past five years than ever before.
But teachers believe Utah can do better.
"We want them to support education," said teacher Kyle Bracken. "We want them to take it seriously."
The legislature is starting to craft its budget, with House and Senate Republicans and Democrats each coming up with their own spending priorities. Then the budgets are merged and voted on to decide what gets funded.
"Funding education is critical," said Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who sits on the budget committee.
She noted that many Salt Lake City school teachers can't even afford to live here anymore. After speaking to the crowd of teachers in the rotunda, she told FOX 13 she hoped her Republican colleagues were listening.
"If you fund education adequately, it prevents a lot of other social issues," she said.