Meet the Music Teacher Who Helped Organize the Arizona Teacher Strike

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 119th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Noah Karvelis, a music teacher in Phoenix and an organizer with Arizona Educators United. Karvelis discusses how teachers in Arizona came to vote on a strike and why educators are rejecting empty promises from the governor about raises and instead pushing forward for their students and colleagues.

Sarah Jaffe: The strike deadline is for Thursday. Let’s go back a little bit. Tell me about the beginning of the movement that has led to this strike vote.

Noah Karvelis: This all really started from just one day wearing red shirts on the same day. That was March 7. We started there and we realized that there was a ton of energy surrounding this around the education community and the community at large, too, here in Phoenix and all across the state. What we ultimately did was we decided that we needed to get together and continue moving this forward and now this is where we are six or seven weeks after.

Tell us about the issues in Arizona. People are familiar with the underfunding of public schools writ large, but what are the specifics in Arizona that people are really upset about?

Some of the biggest things are … we have had just massive cuts to education. Billion-dollar cuts to education that have continued on for years and years — about 10 years now. That is one of the most frustrating things that affect all aspects of our schools.

A lot of our kids here in Arizona don’t have textbooks that they need to be successful. [The textbooks] stop at President George W. Bush, for example. They don’t have working desks and a lot of the classes don’t have paper towels and just the bare necessities that you need for a classroom.

What is happening is we have an entire generation of Arizona citizens who haven’t been given a chance at academic success. It has been thrown away by the state, any chance that they had of academic success. Which is incredibly maddening, especially as an educator. So what happens, in addition to that, is educators are working in just really bad, bad situations.

Then, on top of that, they are getting underpaid. We have the worst pay in the nation for elementary school teachers and we have the second-to-worst pay in the nation for high school teachers. What we really have is an education crisis because our students don’t have the resources that they need to be successful, our teachers don’t have the resources they need to be successful or to even stay in the job, and our public school infrastructure is crumbling on top of it and we are haemorrhaging teachers.

What has been really interesting about these various teacher movements has been the statewide nature of them. Can you tell us a little bit about organizing across the state of Arizona? It is a pretty spread out state …

It is.

What are some of the challenges and the things that have worked out surprisingly well about that whole process?

One of the things that has worked out surprisingly well is that we have social media which really keeps us in the loop and it is a powerful, powerful organizing tool, especially on a large scale like this. A … lot of the state is rural, a lot of the state is Native American reservations. So having those resources to be able to get in touch with people all across the state has proved to be vital. That has really helped us stay in the loop and keep people involved. Everybody across the state is really … they are fed up with this situation, so they are ready to go as soon as you get them plugged in, for the most part. So once we have been able to contact them and bring them in, we have been successful. It has been challenging at times, but as the movement has grown, it has really been a successful thing.

Arizona Educators United. Tell me about that. How long has that been an organization? How did that get started?

It is really not an organization. It has become an organization now, but in truth, it is a Facebook group that started around the start of March … It was started by myself and a couple other educators who said, “We have got to get organized. We have got to figure out what we are doing here and how we are going to make a change and somebody needs to bring that change. Let’s start a group and let’s see what happens.” Now, here we are.

What has the relationship been between the Facebook page and the existing unions?

It has been fantastic. The unions really let the Facebook page on Educators United and the leaders there stay out in front of this thing and keep driving it forward. I think that has been the power of it. It is a grassroots, educator-led movement, and the union has been incredibly respectful of that and they realize that there is a lot of power in that and they let us stay in that spot.

But, while we do that, they are offering us a ton — I mean, decades and decades — of resources and insight and infrastructure. Anything we really need, they lent to us, and they let us stay at the forefront of the decisions and the charge here and it has proven to be a really powerful partnership, especially in a “right-to-work” state.

Exactly. And Arizona, besides just being a “right-to-work” state has had some attacks on public sector unions in recent years, as well.

Yes.

It has been an interesting late winter and early spring for teachers. What was it like watching things start to heat up in West Virginia, and then being part of this as it spread across the country?

It is incredibly empowering to see that, to see what happened in West Virginia, especially with the results. They stood together, they stood in solidarity and they brought the change that they needed. That is incredibly powerful to see, and I think every teacher around the nation … looked at their classroom and said, “Hey, that could be us. Why can’t it be us right now? We deserve better, as well.”

That is what happened in Arizona and it has been incredible to be involved in that in even a small way. It is an incredible, incredible thing that has happened across this state and, as you mentioned, across this nation. It really is a nationwide movement now, and so it has been empowering to be a part of that and to see that there really is power in the people.

The governor of Arizona has already made noises about, finally, getting teachers a raise, but you took a strike vote anyway. Tell us about both what you heard from the governor, and why continue to consider a strike?

Well, first of all, the governor hasn’t passed anything. This isn’t legislation. It is basically just a flyer with some goals on it right now. That is what he has put forth. That is beyond the consideration of what is actually in the proposal. What is in the proposal is problematic, as well. There is no sustainable funding source. So we are really only looking at a one-time thing here and we are beyond Band-Aids like that. We are in a state of crisis. We are haemorrhaging teachers. We don’t have proper infrastructure. We don’t have proper resources. We can’t just have a one-time 9 percent raise. That doesn’t fix the problem.

It doesn’t do enough for our kids and colleagues, and that is the bottom line. On top of it, without that revenue source, we can’t continually bring money into our system. That is a huge problem for us and the raises that he has proposed — they don’t touch our demand of 20 percent, he says that he’ll get there, but again, without those sustainable funding sources, it is an empty promise. And there is nothing in it for our students. It is not going to increase or move the needle on our funding. It doesn’t do enough for our kids and colleagues, and it doesn’t have a sustainable funding source. Right now, it is just words on paper. There is no legislation. So we pursued it and we have continued to escalate our actions because we need change.

Talk about what a sustainable funding source would be.

You can look at other states that have done similar things here. There have been sales taxes, income taxes, all sorts of different things have been proposed. I personally have issues with a sales tax because it is a regressive tax and it disproportionately affects the communities we are fighting for, like working-class folks, like teachers and our students and a lot of our families. So I do have some issues personally with that, but it is certainly better than a one-time raise, which he has proposed right now and nothing sustainable. We can look at the example of other states, and one thing that makes a lot of sense to be personally is the income tax where we have corporations and millionaires pay their fair share. 

What else should people know about what is going on in Arizona, both as part of the nationwide movement and what is specific to Arizona?

They should know that one of the biggest things here … each state that has been involved in these sorts of battles has had certain things that really define what they are doing.

I think two things really define our battle. It is the relationship with the unions, and it has been incredibly powerful and it has been incredibly productive to have educators stay at the front and be assisted with the union. We have touched on that.

The other piece that I think is really important is that our students are at the forefront of it. A 20 percent raise gets a lot of eyes opened, it gets a lot of focus, but that is not what we are really fighting for. We are fighting for our students. That is one of the reasons why we rejected this proposal. It doesn’t do enough for our students and it doesn’t do enough for our colleagues who are left out of those raises. That is one of the big things that is unique to Arizona — it is the student focus and the focus on the entire school. It is not just classroom teachers. We need to see raises for bus drivers, we need to see raises for the cafeteria staff, we need to see raises for the people who are working in the front office. All across the board, these people are incredibly underpaid in Arizona and they deserve a voice, as well.

How can people keep up with you and with the strike?

They can keep up with us on www.ArizonaEducatorsUnited.com and get all your info right there. You can follow me, personally, on Twitter: @Noah_Karvelis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.