Inside Arizona’s #RedForEd uprising
This spring's rebellion of the teachers reached a new milestone with the first-ever statewide walkout by Arizona educators that continues into this week.reports on how this show of determination was organized and what the future holds, with additional reporting in Phoenix from Diana Macasa, Casie Stone and Nathan Rosquist.
A RIVER of red flowed down Washington Street toward the Arizona Capitol building in Phoenix on April 26 as more than 75,000 people marched to send a message in support of educators and public schools.
This first day of a statewide walkout of educators, which will continue into this week, was the culmination of two months of intense grassroots workplace organizing.
Led by rank-and-file educators in the newly formed Arizona Educators United (AEU) and supported by the main state teachers' union, the Arizona Education Association (AEA), teachers, counselors, librarians, school bus drivers, school psychologists, office staff, academic coaches and other staff united to demand higher pay for all school workers and increased funding for the whole public education system.
The buildings of downtown Phoenix echoed with chants of "The educators united will never be divided!" and "Show me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like!" and the now-renowned slogan of this movement "#RedForEd!"
Over the weekend, AEU supporters distributed a questionnaire in schools across the state--according to reports from 1,100 schools, 93 percent of educators supported continuing the strike into this week.
"Monday is a big day," Rebecca Garelli, a seventh-grade teacher in Phoenix and leader in the AEU, said in a national call of teachers. "We have to come out in force...You have to do something. You cannot sit idly by and let others do the work for you. This is a workday."
ON THURSDAY, parents, students, community activists and other supporters marched side by side with educators to let the Gov. Doug Ducey and state lawmakers know they won't stop until their demands are met.
The march provided ample evidence of an undeniable lesson learned this spring and over the last several years: Teachers' strikes have the best signs of any protest, hands down. Here is a sample:
Today, I'm not teaching history. I'm making it.
Ducey: Teaching should not be a debt sentence
AZ's top exports: Citrus, Copper, Teachers
Arm teachers with funds not guns
Starving the schools: Feeding the rich
35 is a speed limit, not a class size
School Wars: The Educators Strike Back
WTF = Where's the funding?
A Classroom Haiku: Teaching in a trailer / I had to buy my own desk / Just living the dream
James Lewis, a special education teacher at Sheely Farms Elementary School in the Tolleson Elementary School District in Phoenix, summarized the day succinctly: "Everyone's out here. It's historic."
Starting at Chase Field, home of baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, the crowd marched around two miles to a massive rally on the grounds of the state Capitol. While there, they listened to leaders of both the AEU and the AEA.
From the stage, Noah Karvelis, a K-8 music teacher in Phoenix, co-founder of the AEU and member of the AEA, rocked the crowd with these words filmed by socialist journalist Eric Blanc:
If we don't stand up to today for our kids, who will? If we don't bring a change to this state, who will? Because clearly, and I think every single one of you here...understands this: If we don't stand up and bring a change, the people sitting in those chairs [pointing to the Capitol] right now will not do it.
We have to be the ones to stand up and fight back in this moment. We have the power, and you can look around and can say with confidence that a new day has dawned in Arizona, where the educators have stood up, and they have fought back. Today will be the day that we look back on as the day we came together and said: Enough.
THE WALKOUT followed weekly #RedForEd days, when educators, students and supporters wore red shirts each Wednesday to send their message. Dozens and sometimes hundreds gathered outside schools in the morning for a "walk-in" to the building to begin the day.
The walk-ins, which started to take place daily before the walkout began last week, were a show of unity--and a testing grounds for organizers to step up both their level of school-based organization and the pressure on state lawmakers.
The AEU encouraged teachers at every school to find one to three liaisons to report to the AEU Facebook page and website about how walk-ins were proceeding.
On April 11, more than 110,000 people at some 1,100 schools around the state "walked-in." The very next day, Gov. Ducey responded by abandoning his previous attempts to hold the line at a paltry 1 percent wage increase and promising a 20 percent raise for teachers by 2020 and a $371 increase in education spending over the next five years.
It was a big concession from the Republican governor--but teachers immediately explained why they weren't satisfied: Ducey wouldn't promise even an extra cent in raises for school workers other than teachers, and his proposed funding increase wouldn't come close to restoring the more than $1 billion hole in the public school budget since the Great Recession of 2008-09.
What's more, Ducey refuses to accept an increase in taxes to pay for increased funding. While it was initially unclear where the money for his proposal would come from, it later turned out that Ducey's math was fuzzy: He was promising raises and more funding based on a projection of increased state revenue that there's no way he can guarantee without higher taxes.
The alternative would be to cut other social services and shift the money to education--an unacceptable solution, teachers say. This divide-and-conquer tactic to pit teachers against the poor and working class population of the state that benefits from these other social services has been tried in other states like West Virginia--and rejected by teachers.
At the April 26 rally, Aaron Abbott, a teacher from North High School in Phoenix, likely spoke for many more teachers when he said:
Ducey offered us a 20 percent raise, but his raise is dirty money. There's no revenue funding source. There's no tax increase. What it does is take from the Arts. It takes from universities. It takes from veteran's health care. And for me, what's most impactful--I have a son with Down syndrome, and Ducey's plan takes from disabled services. It cuts their budget by one-third. That's obscene. It's immoral and violent. I won't do it.
THE BACKDROP to this latest site of the "red state" revolt of educators that has swept across the country is some two decades of tax cuts that led to a massive decrease in education funding. According to one estimate, corporate tax cuts alone have cost the state more than $4 billion in revenue over a period of several decades.
Meanwhile, Arizona public schools have $1.1 billion less in funding than they had in 2008, even before inflation is accounted for.
It's easy to see where the money went. The Arizona Center for Economic Progress has documented that 74 percent of Arizona's corporations pay $50 or less in tax every year, and corporations are projected to pay $949 million less corporate taxes in 2019 than they did in 2007.
The impact is highly regressive: 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.
Arizona teachers have been left with some of the lowest salaries of any state, according to some measures. According to Noah Karvelis:
What most people use as the most accurate measure is the Morrison Institute for Public Policy numbers, which put us at 50th overall when the cost of living is adjusted for. That's last place--and it's last place by a long shot. We would need an 11 percent raise just to go from dead last to second to last.
In addition, Arizona has been subject to years of attacks from those who want to privatize education--in the form of a proliferation of charter schools and "state tax credit voucher programs." The Arizona Center for Economic Progress reports that state subsidies for private school tuition totaled $161 million in 2017.
Despite this privatization bonanza, the revolt of educators has inspired some charter school teachers to protest, too. One educator in a Phoenix charter who was at the April 26 march described conditions in her classroom:
My school has a leaking roof in my classroom. One morning, my students were served snacks with mold on them, and I held them up and I said, "You don't deserve this. You deserve much better." I have four computers in my classroom. One of them works, the rest of them are broken, and all of our standardized tests are online. We just got our art teacher back, but we have no music or band.
ON APRIL 27, the second day of the walkout, as another big crowd estimated at 25,000 people rallied outside the Capitol, Gov. Ducey responded with talk of a new "deal."
Though he refused offers to meet with protesters or teacher organizers, Ducey claimed in a tweet that he had reached an agreement with leaders of the state legislature for a 20 percent pay increase for teachers by 2020 that would be permanent, ongoing and added into base pay; $100 million more in funding for support staff, increasing to $371 million over five years; and no new tax increase.
News of an agreement among lawmakers with concrete details excited many teachers and their supporters.
But Ducey's proposal begs the question of how it will be paid for without a tax increase. Will the money come out of future regressive taxes or cuts to other social services like his previous plan? Is he banking on future economic growth increasing state government revenues--something he can't possibly guarantee?
In response to Ducey, Joe Thomas, president of the AEA, and Noah Karvelis of the AEU released a joint statement that read in part: "We have a press release and a tweet from the governor. We have no bill. We have no deal. The devil is in the details. We know that we have been down this road before. He makes promises that he can't keep. We just can't trust him."
For now, Arizona educators are hopeful that the Ducey's latest promise represents tangible progress--but they aren't ending the walkouts.
On Monday, the AEU has called for a #RedforEd Work Day at the Capitol. There will be a program with speakers starting at 10 a.m., followed by lunch--and then a work session at 1 p.m., where educators will be encouraged to go in the Capitol building to meet with their legislators and attend any sessions where the funding plan will be discussed.
Meanwhile, last Friday, the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, along with a coalition of educators, parents and supporters, announced plans to begin gathering signatures for a ballot initiative this fall called "Invest in Education Act." More than 150,000 signatures are required by July 5 to get the referendum on the November ballot.
Associated Press reported that the legislation "would raise the income tax rate by 3.46 percent on individual incomes above $250,000 or household incomes higher than $500,000. The rate would increase by 4.46 percent for individual income above $500,000 and household incomes above $1 million. Sixty percent of the new funds would go toward teacher salaries. Forty percent would be added for all-day kindergarten and other uses."
Time will tell if Ducey's latest pledge is real or whether educators will see a replay of what happened in Oklahoma, where the Republican-dominated legislature refused to budge beyond its initial bill to raise teachers' salaries by $6,000.
Leaders of the AEU are preparing for the various possibilities ahead. Discussions have begun about starting up a strike fund in case Ducey's deal falls through--or falls short in teachers' eyes.
Also, educators from around the country are collaborating to call for a national #RedForEd day this Wednesday, May 2--to show solidarity not only with Arizona educators, but also teachers in Colorado, Kentucky, Puerto Rico and beyond.
On the first day of the walkout, Aude Odeh, an English teacher from Barry Goldwater High School in the Deer Valley School District in Phoenix, talked in an interview about what he hoped Arizona students would take away from the struggle--speaking for thousands of educators around the state and the country:
I would tell my students that I'm doing this for them. I'm doing this for them right now and for their younger siblings. I'm doing this for the future of Arizona. This is a small-time sacrifice over the next few days, or however long it's going to last. But it's for years and years into the future so that we can fully fund education and make sure that we are training the best and brightest in America.