How Arizona teachers got from A to Z

May 17, 2018

Seattle teacher Darrin Hoop explains how an initially small network of rank-and-file educators seized the "red state rebellion" moment to organize for a statewide strike.

"We have teachers who have been woken from a slumber here."
-- Noah Karvelis, K-8 music teacher and a leader of Arizona Educators United

OVER THE course of about two months, a team of less than 10 rank-and-file educators--most of whom hadn't even met previously--built a rank-and-file teachers' group from the ground up that eventually spread across the Grand Canyon State and led the walkout of some 60,000 Arizona educators that ended May 3.

Primarily through the Arizona Educators United (AEU) Facebook page, educators created a network of 2,000 liaison people in at least 800 of the roughly 1,500 schools around the state.

With the support of the state's main teachers' union, the Arizona Education Association (AEA), they united teachers, counselors, librarians, school bus drivers, school psychologists, office staff, academic coaches and other staff to fight for higher pay for all school workers and increased funding for the whole public education system.

When the dust had settled, they didn't win all their demands. But they clearly won the first battle in the war to fully fund education in the state.

Thousands of Arizona educators descended on Phoenix during the #RedForEd rebellion
Thousands of Arizona educators descended on Phoenix during the #RedForEd rebellion (Gage Skidmore | flickr)

The governor and state legislature agreed to a $240 million increase in funding to schools. With this money, school boards are expected to increase teacher pay by 10 percent.

The budget adds $95 million in District Additional Assistance (DAA) and $5 million in Charter Additional Assistance (CAA) to classrooms. It will be up to individual school districts to decide if this DAA/CAA money goes toward funding school supplies, technology needs, pay increases for support staff or hiring more teachers.

Another $23 million will be allocated for building repairs, early literacy grants and technical education. Finally, and most controversially, $38 million will be spent on "rewarding" schools that score in the top 10 percent on the AZMerit state tests.

While there are many lessons, positive and some negative, to be learned from the #RedForEd movement, there's no question that this struggle marked a step forward in the growing "red-state revolt" of educators that started in West Virginia, spread to Oklahoma and Kentucky, and has now reached North Carolina with yesterday's statewide action.

There are hopeful signs that the seeds of revolt are spreading to so-called blue states, like Colorado, where many districts were shut down by protests last month, and California, where 53,000 workers at the University of California campuses and hospitals struck for three days last week.

AS RECENTLY as April 10, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and his fellow Republicans leading the state legislature were holding firm to their plan of adding just $65 million to the education budget and providing a paltry 1 percent wage increase for public school teachers--and no raise at all for support professionals--as well as continuing plans to further privatize the public school system.

But Ducey and friends were stopped in their tracks when tens of thousands of public school educators decided they had enough.

The #RedForEd movement in Arizona began in late February with the modest idea, modeled after similar actions in West Virginia and Jersey City, that educators would wear red T-shirts to school on the same day. Eventually, these weekly actions on Wednesdays turned into walk-ins, where educators, students and supporters would gather before school outside their buildings and enter as a united group.

On March 28, over 5,000 people rallied at the State Capitol in Phoenix, while educators gathered simultaneously at 15 different regional events around the state. For two straight months, teachers picketed outside the governor's monthly radio show in Phoenix.

The high point of the pre-strike movement occurred on April 11 when more than 110,000 people at some 1,100 schools around the state "walked in." The very next day, Ducey abandoned his previous attempts to hold the line at a 1 percent wage increase and promised a 20 percent raise for teachers by 2020 and a $371 million increase in education spending over the next five.

While mainstream media like The Arizona Republic splashed claims about Ducey proposing a 20 percent pay hike in their headlines, educators around the state were critical.

While recognizing that the governor had made a big concession, they were unhappy that his plan contained no raises for support staff and would have taken money from other public services that poor and working-class Arizonans need to survive.

In response, a resounding 78 percent of the 57,000 educators who voted in a survey organized by the AEU rejected Ducey's proposal and supported a strike beginning April 26.

When that day came, a river of red flowed down Washington Street in Phoenix, as more than 75,000 people marched downtown and rallied outside the Capitol building in the first-ever statewide walkout by Arizona educators.

Four days later, on May 1, Ducey released a new proposal that became the basis for the eventual budget that ended the walkout and led to educators returning to work on May 4.

HOW SHOULD the overall outcome be judged?

It some ways, the gains are as simple as comparing Ducey's initial funding plan of $65 million to the final amount totaling around $400 million.

Then there's the context of what educators were up against in Arizona, a state with a highly regressive tax system, where corporate tax cuts alone have cost the state an estimated $4 billion in revenue over a period of several decades.

Last year, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy found that Arizona had the lowest-paid elementary school teachers in the country when factoring in the cost of living, and that high school teachers ranked 48th out of 50.

So there was a lot of ground to make up to get to the estimated 10 percent raise.

Then there are the less tangible gains of increased teacher power and organization. Rebecca Garelli, another leading member of the AEU and a teacher in Phoenix, said:

The greatest win is that in eight short weeks, we built a fully functioning movement that has an infrastructure that we can use in the future. We built a liaison network and can use that communication network for any action we want to engage them with going forward. Even though this is a right-to-work state that does not mean you don't have a right to use your voice. We have changed a mindset of the people in the movement.

KEEPING THESE points in mind, it's also important to assess the shortcomings in the outcome of this battle--both for educators in Arizona and those around the country who will be waging their own struggles in the future.

First, there is no ongoing, dedicated revenue source to pay for the state's promised increases in pay and classroom funding beyond the first year of the deal. Ducey and the legislature coined the term "advanced appropriations" to explain how they would fund the second and third years of raises, but Ducey is up for re-election this fall and therefore can't guarantee anything after November 7.

"When we talk about it, it's not even a 20 percent raise at all," says Karvelis. "He's promising money that's not there. We are looking at it as a one-time raise right now. One of the big estimates that was thrown out on the House floor was about a 5.7 percent raise. He's really giving it to about half the people who deserve the raise. That's unacceptable to us."

The AEA distributed an analysis of the budget plan that pointed out how it will be up to school districts to determine how much to give in raises or whether to hire more teachers. With regard to DAA funding, districts will have to divide that $100 million between pay raises for support professionals, school supplies and technology needs.

Then there's the $38 million for "results-based funding," which will go to schools that score in the top 10 percent of the AZMerit standardized test. While low-income schools that hit the top score would receive more funding per pupil than high-income schools, Karvelis argues that this is a smokescreen for the underlying inequity of test-driven funding.

"It's a pet project of the governor and a lot of people in the legislature," he says. "Anybody who knows anything about education and standardized testing knows just where that money will go--it will go to rich white districts."

Finally, the Children's Action Alliance has described how funding for education increases continues the state's pattern of regressive taxation.

The state plans to raise money from a new $24 vehicle fee for car owners, greater tax collection enforcement and a number of one-time shifts or sweeps--which essentially means moving money around from other programs to pay for the education funding.

Funding will also come from a property tax increase for homeowners in nine districts, which, in the case of Tucson, will punish residents for the city's desegregation program.

In 1983, the state legislature agreed to allow school districts to raise property-tax levies above their statutory spending limits to comply with costs stemming from a federal court's desegregation order.

The new budget removes the state from responsibility for more than $16 million of a secondary property tax levy to cover the desegregation program, forcing local property owners to foot that bill.

Besides its clearly racist impact, this maneuver allows Ducey to maintain his posture as a fiscal conservative. "He can turn around and say, 'Look, I invested in schools without raising taxes,'" says Karvelis. "Which is technically true, but he's passing the buck and making the school districts raise the taxes."

GIVEN ITS weaknesses, were AEU leaders right to publicly accept the deal on May 1 or should they have fought for more?

While there wasn't unanimity on the AEU leadership team, the majority worried about educators starting to return to the classroom--especially those outside the Phoenix area.

Then there was the fact that the legislature's session was about to end, and it takes either a two-thirds vote by lawmakers or the governor to call for a special session. Meanwhile, the right-wing Goldwater Institute began sending letters to districts threatening lawsuits.

So there were valid concerns that the walkout could lose momentum if it continued into a second week. In addition, because the AEA has no strike fund, many educators--and especially the lower-paid support professionals--would have found it difficult to weather a long strike.

But it's also important to recognize--and learn from--the fact that these concerns weren't brought before all educators to decide by a democratic vote. Dylan Wegela was one of the AEU leaders who advocated for a vote by teachers, just like they had voted in support of a strike before the walkout.

"On the Tuesday [May 1], right before we called people back in, I think not having a voting process was a huge mistake," he says. "We blindsided a lot of people. I think keeping the process as democratic as possible is really important."

In any event, the return to work on May 4 marked the end of this phase of the struggle for Arizona schools. The next began when educators returned to work on May 5 and attended trainings on a new ballot initiative launched on the second day of the strike.

The Invest in Education Act, organized by the Arizona Center for Economic Progress and a coalition of educators, parents and supporters, would raise $690 million annually through raising the income tax rate one percent on Arizona households making over $500,000 a year. More than 150,000 signatures are required by July 5 to get the referendum on the November ballot.

The campaign to win this measure will surely galvanize the next phase of the movement in Arizona, but Wegela wonders if might have lessened the urgency of the walkout.

"I think we pivoted to the ballot initiative a little early," he says. "In the middle of the walkout is when it was announced. It told the legislature we didn't have any belief or expectation for them to go further than they had already planned on going. It gave the legislators an out and definitely hurt us from a negotiation standpoint."

The enormous scope and significance of this historic strike--and those in West Virginia, Oklahoma and elsewhere--deserve continued discussion and debate, not just among educators, but all workers, whether unionized or not.

The strikes definitely didn't win everything teachers initially set out for. But it would be unrealistic to expect anything different after a 40-year war on unions and workers by corporations and their servants in both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Learning from these struggles should be of the utmost priority for anyone who's serious about rebuilding a fighting labor movement in the U.S. Dylan Wegela articulated the crucial starting point for the future:

People now believe in their ability to ask for things. At my own site, teachers are talking about forming a committee to stand up and stand together against certain policies that a lot of people at my school disagree with.

I think we really proved wrong the belief that you can't mobilize and be effective. It doesn't matter what the laws of the state are. If there's a cause that is just and people are motivated, you can accomplish a lot. It will change the power structure of what teachers believe they deserve and don't deserve. That's the huge lesson to be learned from our struggle.

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