Arizona Teachers Are Out On the Largest Strike in State History. Here’s Why.

Sarah Lahm April 26, 2018

Tens of thousands of Arizona teachers are striking for higher wages and increased school funding. (Save Our Schools Arizona / Facebook)

Jen Samuels is excit­ed. She is a teacher in the Par­adise Val­ley School Dis­trict near Phoenix, Ariz. and was up ear­ly today, although she will not be in her class­room. Today Samuels and thou­sands of her fel­low teach­ers are out on strike, and up to 50,000 edu­ca­tors and their sup­port­ers are expect­ed to march to the Ari­zona state capi­tol in near­ly 100-degree heat.

My mini­van will be filled with teach­ers,” Samuels tells In These Times. We are dri­ving to a light rail sta­tion, tak­ing the train to the sta­di­um where the Ari­zona Dia­mond­backs play base­ball, and then march­ing 1.7 miles to the capitol.”

Samuels’ hus­band will be fol­low­ing along behind her, so that her three young chil­dren can attend the march. Schools will be closed across the state in sup­port of the walk­out, with many observers believ­ing this will become the largest teacher strike in recent history.

Over 800,000 stu­dents in both tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools and char­ter schools and are expect­ed to be impact­ed by the walk­out, as their schools will like­ly be closed until an agree­ment over pay and class­room fund­ing is reached between teach­ers and Arizona’s gov­er­nor and leg­is­la­tors. So far, Repub­li­can Gov. Doug Ducey has pro­posed20 per­cent raise, to be grad­u­al­ly phased in by 2020.

Strike orga­niz­ers, though, includ­ing the grass­roots group Ari­zona Edu­ca­tors Unit­ed, say that the 20 per­cent pay raise meets only one of their five demands, and effec­tive­ly cuts non-licensed school staff out of the deal because only teach­ers’ salaries would see an increase. The teach­ers’ demands are avail­able online and include a pledge that tax­es not be cut in Ari­zona until per-pupil spend­ing reach­es the nation­al average.”

This mes­sage doesn’t appear to have reached Gov. Ducey, how­ev­er, as he signed a tax break into law on April 25, just hours before teach­ers were set to strike. In a deal that could cost Ari­zona $12 mil­lion in annu­al tax rev­enue, Gov. Ducey signed off on a no-tax pledge designed to attract a buy­er for a coal pow­er plant on the Nava­jo Nation. Samuels says that, to her knowl­edge, Ducey has still refused to meet with edu­ca­tors in per­son and has so far only invit­ed school super­in­ten­dents to the table.

Arizona’s invest­ment in pub­lic edu­ca­tion — from its per-pupil spend­ing to its teacher pay rate — is hov­er­ing near the bot­tom for all fifty states, accord­ing to numer­ous sources. This has led to an edu­ca­tion cri­sis that has been exac­er­bat­ed by Arizona’s near­ly bound­less pur­suit of school choice schemes — includ­ing school vouch­ers — that have helped steer mon­ey away from pub­lic school districts.

In August, 2017, Gov. Ducey signed a mas­sive expan­sion of the state’s vouch­er pro­gram into law, sig­nal­ing his sup­port for the use of pub­lic funds for pri­vate schools. Moves like this, crit­ics allege, have helped land Ari­zona where it is today, with thou­sands of edu­ca­tors and their sup­port­ers don­ning red, the cho­sen col­or of their Red for Ed cam­paign, and ral­ly­ing at the state capitol.

For Anne Ellsworth, a par­ent and Epis­co­pal priest based in Tempe, it was the 2017 vouch­er expan­sion bill that led her to get involved in the fight for Arizona’s pub­lic schools. The bill was orig­i­nal­ly pro­posed by Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tor Deb­bie Lesko who claimed that divert­ing pub­lic mon­ey to pri­vate schools would save tax­pay­er mon­ey.” In response, Ellsworth became part of a grass­roots, pro-pub­lic school group called Save Our Schools, and hasn’t looked back since.

Save Our Schools just won the right to have an anti-vouch­er expan­sion ref­er­en­dum placed on the Novem­ber bal­lot in Ari­zona. For Ellsworth, this is all about the peo­ple of Ari­zona ris­ing up to express their col­lec­tive sup­port for the state’s pub­lic schools.

I am com­ing at this as a par­ent who cares deeply not only for my own chil­dren, but for all the chil­dren that attend Ari­zona schools,” Ellsworth says. But there’s more. As a priest, I believe our bud­gets are moral doc­u­ments. I believe cler­gy need to be vocal about hav­ing our leg­is­la­tors pass leg­is­la­tion that cares for our sick and our poor.”

What Ari­zona needs, Ellsworth insists, is not a short term fix like the one she says Gov. Ducey has offered, but instead new rev­enue streams ded­i­cat­ed to sup­port­ing schools, stu­dents and edu­ca­tors. Ari­zona gives away approx­i­mate­ly $14 bil­lion in tax exemp­tions, and our state brings $9.8 bil­lion into our gen­er­al fund. The gen­er­al fund mon­ey is how we pay for our schools, but we are giv­ing away more than we are col­lect­ing, through cor­po­rate tax cred­its and exemptions.” 

Don’t let any­one ever tell you there is no mon­ey in Ari­zona, Ellsworth says. Instead, what she sees is a gov­er­nor behold­en to out­side mon­ey from groups such as Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty (fund­ed by the Koch Broth­ers) and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion for Chil­dren, a pro-vouch­er group affil­i­at­ed with Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Bet­sy Devos.

There is no respect for the will of the peo­ple right now,” Ellsworth argues, not­ing that she first request­ed a meet­ing with Gov. Ducey last year and nev­er received a response. Today, she will be at the capi­tol with her chil­dren. As she reflects on what’s hap­pen­ing, Ellsworth frames the Ari­zona walk­out as a des­per­ate mea­sure for pub­lic school advo­cates from across the state. This is tru­ly the last straw,” she says. All pos­si­ble chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have been exhausted.”

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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