Arizona’s Teacher Strikes: The End or Just the Beginning?
For six school days in late April and early May, teachers across the state of Arizona walked out of their classrooms to demand better pay, more classroom funding, and other concessions from governor Doug Ducey (R) and the Republican-controlled state legislature. These teachers, inspired by similar walk-outs in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, brought their “outside voices” together to call for change. In the early morning hours of May 3, Ducey signed the new state budget that gave teachers a raise. But, the bill fell short of meeting the walkout organizers’ other demands. Some have said the #RedforEd movement failed because it did not deliver on all of the group’s demands. Still, this strike was just the beginning.
It is important for me to be transparent about my personal connections to this issue. My mother is a life-long public school teacher, who recently retired after over 25 years of teaching in schools across Arizona. As part of Teach for America, I spent three years teaching in the Littleton Elementary School District, the same district where #RedforEd organizer Noah Karvelis teaches, although Mr. Karvelis started teaching after I left for law school. During my first two years of teaching, I earned my Master’s degree in secondary education from Arizona State University. And while I moved across the country to attend law school in Boston, I have kept in touch with many of my former colleagues in Arizona.
The issues with education funding in Arizona started in 2008, while the country was reeling from the recession. As states across the country scrambled to fix their budgets, Arizona’s schools took a big hit. Ten years later, while the economy has recovered, funding for Arizona’s schools didn’t. According to a report by the state’s auditor, schools were receiving less inflation-adjusted dollars per student in 2017 than they were in 2008. During that time, the state has seen its income limited by a number of tax cuts, the largest of which have gone to corporations. Despite promises, economic research has indicated that the cuts have not stimulated economic growth, resulting in decreasing government revenue. All this has translated into horrible conditions in many schools across the state.
The combination of the lowest teacher salaries in the country, low education funding, and successful walkouts in other states urged Arizona’s educators to take action. The group Arizona Educators United, which started the #RedforEd movement, laid out five demands: 20% raises for teaching & certified staff; pay raises for classified staff (janitors, paraprofessionals, secretaries, etc.); restoring classroom funding to 2008 levels; no new tax cuts until Arizona’s per-student funding reaches the national average, and annual raises for teachers until salaries reach the national average.
The movement’s hashtag, #RedforEd, started as a way to draw attention to the lack of education funding. Teachers began with “walk-ins” – they arranged to arrive at school early and stand just outside their school’s gates, wearing red shirts and waving signs. The walk-ins were aimed at building community support. Teachers also protested outside the capital during a “teach-in” on March 28 after the school day ended. The walk-ins continued for another month and, when the state legislature wasn’t receptive, the strikes began on Thursday, April 26.
After nearly 13 hours of debate, Governor Ducey signed a new state budget that included nearly $273 million for teacher pay raises. That will only amount, however, to a 9% raise this year. Governor Ducey has plans to provide 5% raises in each of the next two years, in addition to the 1% raise teachers saw at the start of the last school year. But, this plan has a big problem. The legislature passes a new budget each year. So, while Ducey has “plans” to provide a 20% raise by 2020, that plan is completely out of his control because the decision ultimately lies with the legislature.
There are a number of other concerns that the teachers have with Ducey’s deal. The budget does nothing to raise per-pupil spending, increase pay to support staff, or reduce the state’s student-to-counselor ratio. While the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per counselor, Arizona averages 924 students per counselor. A Democratic representative, Mitzi Epstein, had offered an amendment that would mandate a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio, but the amendment failed.
While the budget itself certainly contained far less than #RedforEd supporters had hoped for, the fight is far from over. There are a number of ballot measures this November that could take Arizona’s education system in radically different directions. First, Proposition 305 asks voters whether they want to keep Senate Bill 1431 in place. That bill expanded what are formally called “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” (“ESAs”) but more commonly known as school choice “vouchers.” While the two terms are not mere synonyms because they allocate money somewhat differently, the net result is that ESAs may be used by parents to send their child to private schools (including religiously affiliated schools). The money for ESAs is taken from public schools which, as stated, are grossly underfunded.
Organizers are also seeking petition signatures to place another initiative on the ballot related to education funding. The “#InvestInEd” ballot measure, which has not been given a number yet because it is not yet formally on the ballot, calls for tax increases on income over $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for married couples. The web page in support of the ballot measure states that “[t]he higher rates are only paid on the income above those amounts.” Perhaps most importantly, funding secured through a ballot measure such as this one “cannot be taken away by the legislature.”
Finally, the #RedforEd movement has even driven some teachers to take more direct action. After spending nearly a week at the Capitol pleading with legislators to take action, several educators are running for elected positions themselves. The article by the Arizona Capitol Times identified former teachers running as both republicans and democrats for positions in the state house and senate, as well as local school boards.
The flurry of activity around education funding in Arizona makes a bold statement: this issue is not going away. While the strikes may be over and the new budget is signed, teachers have made clear that this will be a big issue come November. Beyond the ballot initiatives and teachers running for elected office, Governor Ducey is up for reelection. The #RedforEd movement unquestionably fell short of their goals – the last answer on the Arizona Educators United “FAQ” page makes that clear. But, to say that the movement died when the strikes ended is to underestimate the political will of angry teachers. Time will tell, but I think the movement for education improvement in Arizona is far from over.
David Bier anticipates graduating from Boston University School of Law in May, 2019.