Who’s afraid of the Arizona teachers?

April 18, 2018

Darrin Hoop, an educator in Seattle, traveled to Arizona to witness the organizing by teachers that is shaking politics in yet another "red state." Here's what he saw.

"I'VE BEEN listening, and I've been impressed. But the winners today are the teachers in the state of Arizona. If some others want to claim credit, they are more than welcome to jump on the bandwagon."

These are the words of Arizona's Republican Gov. Doug Ducey at an April 12 press conference in the state Capitol building in Phoenix, where he announced a funding plan that he claims will raise Arizona teachers' pay by 20 percent by 2020 and increase education funding by $371 million by 2023.

This is a stunning turn of events in another of the "red-state revolts" of educators that have swept the country, from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky and now Arizona.

Arizona Educators United (AEU), the grassroots teachers group that has led the organizing here, is holding a vote among the 45,000 members who belong to the group's private Facebook page, on whether to support a walkout and continuing protests, as has taken place in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

And today will be another of the AEU's "walk-in" days, with teachers, students, parents and community members at more than 1,000 schools around the state rallying in the morning before marching together into school--a clear message that the teachers' #RedForEd message isn't receding after Ducey's proposal.

Arizona teachers hit the streets to defend public education
Arizona teachers hit the streets to defend public education

JUST TWO days before Ducey's announcement, he had publicly stood by his previous proposal of adding just $34 million to the budget for a 1 percent pay raise for teachers. "I'm staying out of the political theater," he smirked.

What on earth could have led the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery and former regional board member of the anti-union Teach for America to have such a change of heart and magically find hundreds of millions of dollars for education in the span of two days?

Ducey's smug "political theater" comments on April 10 came as more than 300 educators, parents, students and supporters picketed for the second month in a row on the sidewalk outside KTAR radio in Phoenix, where Ducey does a monthly interview.

Kelsea Greene, a three-year special education middle school teacher, said the intent of the protest that day was "just to show Ducey that we are not stopping...We want to have a presence at this one to show him that we are going to continue to show up. We are not going to go away if he just ignores us. It's not going to fizzle out."

And boy, has the Arizona teachers' struggle not "fizzled out"!

The KTAR picket was mere prelude to what would happen the next day. According to lead organizers of the grassroots teachers organization Arizona Educators United, more than 100,000 educators, parents, students and community members participated in 1,000-plus "walk-ins" on April 11.

At these walk-ins led by rank-and-file educators, large numbers gathered outside schools in the morning. Against the background of honking cars driving by, the red-T-shirted crowds chanted, among other things, the "#RedForEd" slogan that has come to represent the growing statewide movement for increased educator pay and education funding.

As Noah Karvelis, a K-8 music teacher in his second year of teaching at a Phoenix elementary school, explained in an interview with SocialistWorker.org, RedForEd got started as an initiative to bring together teachers on his own campus by wearing red.

Within days, Karvelis had been deluged by messages from other educators who wanted to adopt the RedForEd actions. Many of these teachers are at the core of the AEU, and their actions have grown with their wider support to include the walk-ins around the state.

DURING A visit to Arizona last week to bring solidarity to the struggle, I attended two walk-ins. The first, starting at 6:45 a.m., was at Chandler High School, in Chandler, a suburb to the southeast of Phoenix.

There, I met Katie Byrne Nash, one of the rank-and-file leaders helping to lead the action of around 75 people. Katie is a ninth- and 12th-grade biology teacher who has taught for 12 years, the last four in Arizona. She explained the reason for the action that morning:

We are out here this morning supporting funding for education. We are a positive, unified bunch of educators who are urging our state to do what's right and to properly fund our classrooms so that we can make the best of the education that kids have here in Arizona.

Teachers, students and others lined up in a single file line along North Arizona Avenue, holding a red paper chain educators made to signify the unbreakable solidarity they felt towards one another at their school, but also with the 100,000 others walking in around the state. The chain stretched several hundred feet along the entire line of protesters.

When it was time to head into school, participants held their individual links as they walked toward the entrance, before gathering for a large group photo at the school's doorstep.

The second walk-in I attended was a 10-minute drive southwest to Bogle Junior High, also in Chandler. Across the street is Jacobson Elementary School. As around 50 educators and supporters lined up on the Bogle side of West Queen Creek Road, another 50 gathered on the Jacobson side.

At Bogle, Keli McDaid, a seventh- and eight-grade math teacher in in her ninth year of teaching, told me why she was taking a stand for public education: "I'm out here not just for myself, not just for teacher raises, not just to get more money, but for the entire community because strong public schools and highly qualified teachers are a public service."

When I spoke with Suzanne Reinert, an 18-year veteran special education teacher, it became clear how and why this movement could win--and already is.

Literally thousands of educators around the state are mobilizing--and they aren't being told what to do by union leaders. They are becoming rank-and-file leaders for the first time, organizing their own schools with at times little or no direct involvement from their union the Arizona Education Association (AEA).

The official leadership of the AEA has so far supported this movement, but it's the rank-and-file leadership of the Arizona Educators United and teachers like Katie Bryne Nash, Suzanne Reinert and many others who have taken the lead.

Reinert, for example, is her school's liaison. Through the encouragement of AEU, more than 1,000 Arizona schools now have at least one, and sometimes two or three, liaisons whose job is to organize their school and report back via the AEU website to centralize the information, spread it around the state and make it a part of discussions about the next steps in the movement.

Reinert said she had never been "political" or an "activist" in the post. But, she said:

[t]he moment that I heard of this movement and found out that a group of teachers were going to meet outside of the KTAR radio station while Governor Ducey was talking last month, I immediately made a commitment to go to that. I met so many teachers who are not treated so well in this state...

I found out when I was at that rally outside KTAR studio that there are teachers in this state who have been teaching for over 12 years and have a master's degree, and they're making $38,000. They're making less today than they were in 2015. I have a problem with that. I'm out here for our future because the students who we teach are our future.

AT THE end of the walk-ins, participants, in groups of three or four, linked arms and slowly marched into the school. Multiply this action by 1,000 around the state, and it's easy to see why Ducey announced his new education funding proposal the very next day.

While mainstream media like The Arizona Republic splashed headlines claiming "Ducey proposes 20 percent pay increase for teachers by 2020," leaders of the AEU are very critical of the governor's "plan."

One of them is Rebecca Garelli, a seventh-grade math and science teacher in Phoenix. Garelli taught for 11 years in Chicago and was on the picket lines for the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012. She's now in her first year of teaching in Arizona. She said of Ducey's proposal:

It isn't an actual plan, but rather a hastily thrown together one-pager. It doesn't address salary questions beyond the narrow definition of "teachers," which omits academic coaches, counselors and support staff. Therefore, it doesn't fully meet our demands in regards to pay. This proposal doesn't introduce any new money, but rather implies that funds will be shifted around and removed from other areas, which could have an immensely negative impact.

I do think that the fact that the governor proposed this plan publicly is a strong indicator of the #RedforEd's movement and power. Ducey failed to meet with our negotiating team prior to releasing this "plan." Therefore, I believe it was meant as a last-ditch effort to silence the noise we have so powerfully created.

Another AEU leader, Noah Karvelis, a K-8 music teacher in his second year of teaching in Phoenix, explained:

Ducey saw that we have power. And he saw that the community supports us. That's what made this happen. This is the same governor who called us "political operatives" just days before--now he's saying he has been "impressed" by our movement and unveiled this proposal. It was the power of our grassroots movement and the strategic actions that we have taken so far that brought us to this moment.

AEU MEMBERS are considering Ducey's "plan" and organizing future actions in response to it. They are thinking through how the proposal does or doesn't meet the group's original set of demands, which include:

A 20 percent raise for all teaching and certified staff for the 2018-2019 school year that is built into the salary schedule at the district level and mandated by the state.

Competitive wages for all classified staff based on the inflation rate of the previous year.

Return school funding to 2008 levels, along with decreasing class sizes to 23 students-to-one teacher.

No new tax cuts until Arizona per-pupil spending reaches the national average, which includes not reapportioning tax revenue in a way that hurts low socioeconomic status families and individuals.

Yearly raises until the Arizona teacher salary reaches the national average.

Arizona public schools have $1.1 billion less in funding than they had in 2008. That's no wonder when one takes into account the regressive nature of the tax system in Arizona.

According to the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, 74 percent of Arizona's corporations pay $50 or less in tax every year; corporations are projected to pay $949 million less corporate taxes in 2019 than they did in 2007; and Arizona's lowest income families pay $12.50 in state and local taxes for every $100 they earn, while Arizona's millionaires only pay $5.70 for every $100 in income.

The money is clearly there, but it will require taxing the rich to pay for the education crisis that the rich and powerful and their politicians created. Educators around the state are speaking up about that face--and leading the struggle forward.

Teachers and other labor supporters around the country can help by building solidarity with Arizona. For example, Seattle Education Association members voted unanimously at a union meeting to declare Wednesdays #RedforEd days. Teachers will wear red union shirts, and take group pictures and post them on social media to show their support.

ON APRIL 11, the day of the walk-ins, Dylan Wegela, a second-year seventh-grade Social Studies teacher in Phoenix, was the final speaker at a meeting of several hundred educators held that afternoon at his school district headquarters.

Referencing conversations he had with strikers from West Virginia and elsewhere at the recent Labor Notes conference in Chicago, Wegela summarized what it would take to win this struggle:

I spoke to teachers who organized West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma. There's one thing they kept telling us...[that] Arizona is more organized than they were when they called their work actions.

What that says to me is that the path to victory is right out in front of us, and all we have to do is take it. And as the momentum grows, it's essential that we continue to put the pressure on the state to address these issues immediately. Because if we don't, then when is the time going to be? This is our time! This is our moment!

Further Reading

From the archives