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Arizona Educators Stage First Statewide Walkout as Teacher Revolt Grows

Today’s walkout is Arizona’s first statewide teachers’ strike.

Leaders of Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association hold a press conference in the run-up to today's walkout in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 25, 2018.

Unlike West Virginia and Oklahoma, today’s teacher walkout in Arizona is the first statewide strike ever held by educators in the Grand Canyon State. But the state still resembles others revolting this spring because educators there also lack collective bargaining rights under so-called “right-to-work” provisions, and their decision walk out over decades of low pay and cuts to education is technically illegal.

As of now, Arizona teachers may be risking a bit more than teachers elsewhere due to a 1971 opinion from the state attorney general spelling out that those who engage in a strike could be terminated or lose their teaching credentials. Despite this, 78 percent of the approximately 57,000 Arizona teachers who cast ballots last Thursday voted in favor of today’s action. Between 30,000 to 50,000 are expected to march through Phoenix to the State Capitol building today as more than 100 school districts close.

Colorado is the fifth state to join the national movement for fully funded schools, linking up with Arizona today and tomorrow in closing school districts serving about half the student population, including its three largest districts as more than 10,000 teachers protest in Denver. Republicans lawmakers there, however, are pushing legislation that would see teachers punished with fines and up to six months in county jail for striking.

In Arizona, teachers are collectively seeing through Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s empty promises to provide a 20 percent pay hike by 2020 and restore school budgets to pre-Recession levels over the next five years — all without raising taxes. They say the plan fails to address much-needed funding for classrooms and support staff and is unrealistic over the long term. If the governor’s plan is approved without new sources of revenue, legislative budget analysts predict a $265 million statewide deficit in 2020.

Governor Ducey met with lawmakers this week, including Democrats, to push his budget plan, but he did not respond to two letters requesting face-to-face talks from the organizations leading the work stoppage, Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association. The governor did, however, meet earlier with a group of teachers who were not among either organizations’ leadership.

“He brought teachers in to say, ‘Hey, I talked to teachers,'” said Noah Karvelis, who teaches music at Tres Rios Service Academy in the Littleton Elementary School District in Tolleson and founded Educators United. “I think he expected a photo and a couple nice sound bites from teachers. He tried to go around us, but … hopefully, we’ll be speaking a language he understands now.”

Governor Ducey’s office did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment. Today’s walkout also comes as the state’s Republicans are still reeling from a recent special election, barely managing to hold onto to their congressional seat by a five-point margin in a district that Donald Trump won by 21 percentage points in 2016.

Like other Republican-dominated states where teachers are revolting, Arizona has slashed approximately $1 billion from schools since the beginning of the 2008 recession while simultaneously cutting taxes. It came in third-to-last in 2015 in terms of spending per pupil, and teachers average a $47,000 annual salary, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, teachers just starting their careers see much lower salaries, and it’s these young educators who are most-actively leading the effort there.

Arizona’s #RedforEd movement has been spearheaded by Educators United, a grassroots group and Facebook page with more than 49,500 members. The Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, by contrast, has 20,000. Such numbers, however, are par for the course in a state where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory.

“Governor Ducey tried to go around us, but hopefully, we’ll be speaking a language he understands now.”

“What [the Education Association] has done, is they’ve realized that the power is with the educators right now. That is the power of this movement, … it’s educators standing up for other educators. So they’ve allowed us to really retain our position in that and lead the charge on this,” Karvelis said. “That collaboration of a grassroots, citizen- and teacher-led movement along with the union is proving to be especially powerful in a conservative, right-to-work state.”

Karvelis, who has lived paycheck to paycheck during his two years teaching and recently moved after being priced out of his residence, said the campaign started when he created the very first #RedforEd event on Facebook in March. The movement and page grew from there, progressing into a strategy of coordinated protests in which educators “walk in” to their schools and lay out their demands. Like other states, Arizona’s teacher movement has been led from the bottom up, and less so by the predominant union in the state.

Despite the 1971 attorney general opinion, Karvelis said the prospect of mass firings or stripping of teacher certifications remains unlikely in view of the overwhelming decision from the state’s teachers in favor of the walkout. The state also faces a staffing shortage crisis in subjects like math, science and special education as teachers move out of state to see better-funded classrooms — and pay increases of more than $20,000 a year in some states.

Both Educators United and the Education Association have worked to inform their members of the penalties attached to the 1971 court opinion. While then-Attorney General Gary Nelson’s opinion didn’t specify any fine or jail time as a consequence of a work stoppage, the prospect of districts targeting particular teachers seen as leaders remains a possibility, according to Education Association President Joe Thomas.

“They might just take your certificate because you are seen as a troublemaker.”

“I hear people from time to time say, ‘They can’t fire all of us,’ or ‘They can’t take all of our certificates.’ Well, I don’t want anyone to confuse that with job security. It’s a very different thing,” Thomas told Truthout. “They might just take your certificate, or might just fire you because you are seen as a troublemaker.”

That’s why several public school boards acting in solidarity with the walkout have voted to remove punitive language from their district policies. So far, no district has announced any plans to terminate or revoke the certificates of educators who walk out today. But some teachers who are already planning to relocate to another state because they can’t make ends meet say they have nothing to lose anyway.

MacKenzy Watson moved from Ohio to Arizona just out of college to teach third-graders at the Glenn F. Burton School in Glendale, and she plans to find a teaching job back home this June because she can’t support herself “in any way by being a teacher” in Arizona.

On top of that, she’s had to deal with ballooning class sizes of between 30 and even 50 students in cases when the school was unable to find a substitute teacher. Watson picks up as many after-school activities as she can to bring in some much-needed extra cash, including tutoring, coaching and other after-school programs. Her rent, student loans, insurance premiums and other bills eat up the entirety of her paychecks. She’d have to get a second job, she says, if it wasn’t for the support she receives from her family.

“Honestly, it’s more worth it to just try and get a job out there [in Ohio], even moving back without a job, than to stay [in Arizona],” Watson told Truthout. Despite her impending departure, she still plans to join her colleagues today in walking out of class and has also participated in “walk-in” protests at her school each Wednesday.

“It’s more worth it to just try and get a job out there in Ohio than to stay.”

“I know that I’m moving, but I still love my students and I love the people that I met here, and I need to be able to support them. It’s all for my students,” she said. “Even though I am leaving, I’m still trying to do this to help them get a better education because they deserve it. It’s not about me. It’s about them.”

Still, even if today’s walkout does not see repercussions, the state’s right-to-work provisions are affecting the movement in other ways. Educators United has worked closely with attorneys to craft the language being used on GoFundMe pages to raise funds for staging the walkout, for instance. Karvelis, however, said the group was still working toward a longer-term strike fund in the run-up to today’s walkout.

He remains concerned about how the strike could affect districts where school shutdowns would see hourly workers like custodians without their paychecks. He’s had conversations with his own superintendent about a model that would still allow hourly workers to clock in.

“Hourly workers in our schools are a huge concern. But they’re included in our demands. They’re included in the movement,” Karvelis told Truthout. “They were included in the vote. So we’ll be keeping really strong lines of communication still open there so that we can put everybody in a progressive place without impacting them in a negative way.”

Parents are also banding together in communities to support the walkout, cooperatively sharing child care duties for other parents who must work. It’s a reflection of the vigorous public support that teachers’ walkouts and protests have received throughout the nation.

Unlike West Virginia and Oklahoma’s walkout, Arizona’s teachers are demanding the legislature’s immediate concession of any new tax cuts. Oklahoma’s teachers did unsuccessfully push the legislature to eliminate the state’s capital gains tax exemption but stopped short of a broader demand for no new cuts.

Thomas pointed to one tax exemption for downloadable data purchased over the internet, known as the “Netflix” cut. Teachers in Oklahoma similarly pushed for Amazon and other online retailers to collect state sales tax on items sold through their platforms from third-party vendors.

“I think the tax cuts are going to become — very quickly — toxic.”

In addition to providing a generous capital gains break, Arizona legislators cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006 and cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, shortchanging the state’s general fund. According to the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, teachers’ 20 percent pay raise would be covered if legislators simply reversed the corporate tax cuts they have enacted.

Moreover, tax exemptions for special interests have hit the state hard. More than $13.5 billion in taxes went uncollected during the last fiscal year — the majority coming from a range of services that are exempt from the state’s sales tax, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

“I think the tax cuts are going to become — very quickly — toxic, and legislators just will not do them because everyone will begin to understand what educators know: that tax cuts hurt students,” Thomas told Truthout. “It’s a huge risk for legislators to advance that stuff.”

Educators United and the Education Association plan to sustain the walkout until their demands are met, as long as members remain supportive. If legislators do not come up with a suitable plan for school funding, the groups may consider a ballot initiative, leaders said.

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