When Governor Doug Ducey announced his proposed teacher-pay raise on Thursday, among the crowd of supporters behind him were representatives of two groups: the Arizona Parent Teacher Association and Save Our Schools Arizona, a grassroots organization fighting the expansion of school vouchers.
Some #RedForEd movement supporters found it strange that PTA President Beth Simek and SOS spokesperson Dawn Penich-Thacker appeared to publicly back Ducey's plan.
To them, it seemed like Simek and Penich-Thacker had rushed to support Ducey, even though his proposal did not address the full scope of the teachers' demands.
After Ducey's announcement concluded, Simek and Penich-Thacker stayed behind to explain their decision in a Facebook video, only to field a number of angry comments from their supporters.
Michelle Thompson commented on the video that SOS and the PTA had played into Ducey's hands: "He just wanted you to be standing behind him looking like you support him," she wrote.
"You are pushovers..." Facebook user David Wallace wrote to the women.
The split reaction to Ducey's proposal shows that among the groups broadly aligned with the #RedForEd movement – SOS, the PTA, the Arizona Education Association, and AEU – not all of them favor the same approach to winning increased pay and funding.
Leaders of #RedForEd grassroots group Arizona Educators United were not invited to the governor's announcement on Thursday, unlike SOS and the PTA, and were instantly suspicious of what Ducey was offering.
"This plan is reminiscent of talking points," AEU leader Dylan Wegela said at the time, and argued that everyone should ask the question, "Where is this money coming from?"
Both the PTA and SOS support the #RedForEd movement of teachers fighting for better pay and school funding.
Yet while SOS and the PTA are willing to listen to Ducey on his proposed raise, the Arizona Education Association and AEU seem ready to engage in hardball negotiations to secure more significant gains in school funding and raises backed by new revenue.
Asked if SOS and the PTA were too eager to take the governor at his word, AEU leader Noah Karvelis declined comment on the difference in the groups' approach to Ducey's proposal. He's focused right now on the opinions of AEU members, and they're not supportive of Ducey's pay-raise proposal, he said.
Shortly after the governor launched his plan, #RedForEd leaders along with Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas responded with their own announcement, where they gave Ducey's plan a failing grade for being too vague and for ignoring their other demands beyond better pay.
There was no sustainable source of revenue included in Ducey's plan to fund the teacher raises long-term, AEU teachers argued, and the proposal also made no mention of significant increases in school funding that would bring up Arizona's rate of per-pupil spending. AEU says that the fight is far from over — this week, they are voting on whether to walk out of schools.
"He took a shot at one demand here, and he missed that," Karvelis said shortly after Ducey released his plan. "And we have four others that he hasn’t even touched upon yet."
Arizona teachers started getting organized last month, inspired by the teachers in West Virginia who successfully walked out for better wages. Groups like SOS and the PTA seized on the #RedForEd groundswell, making sure that their leaders were represented at rallies. Just a few weeks ago, both Simek and Penich-Thacker addressed a crowd of fired-up educators at the Capitol rally where AEU teachers released their list of demands.
In a news conference at the Capitol on Monday, Simek and the leaders of other Arizona education associations made the case for Ducey's proposal, with Simek offering a pointed argument against "cynicism and listening to rumors" that seemed targeted at AEU and the teacher's union.
"Parents know that engaging in ideas is far more productive than just dismissing them outright," Simek said. The PTA is willing to "work with anyone who has an idea about how to begin to reinvest in Arizona's public schools and show our support for teachers, because that is what's best for kids," Simek added.
Simek also wrote in a statement on Friday that because the PTA has pressed for teacher raises for years, she made sure that her organization was represented at Ducey's announcement.
"While Arizona PTA is not part of the direct negotiations, for the first time in many, many years, Arizona PTA has been sought out and included as a respected partner in the conversation at the Capitol," Simek wrote.
At the same time that Simek and others were arguing the merits of Ducey's proposal, the Arizona Education Association and AEU released a joint statement officially rejecting the governor's plan. The Association and AEU explained that without sustainable funding, the governor's proposed raises are "nothing but empty promises."
Thomas, the union president, wrote, “As educators, we know what students need. If we’re serious about giving every student a great education, we need to get serious about doing what works — and this budget just doesn’t work for Arizona’s students.”
As Penich-Thacker tells it, the governor's office reached out to the PTA and SOS a few hours before Ducey's Thursday news conference, telling them that Ducey was about to release a proposal on teacher pay.
There's no legacy of trust between SOS and the governor's office, Penich-Thacker explained – Ducey signed a bill to expand school vouchers, setting up a fight with SOS, which wants to torpedo the measure this fall in a referendum.
"It was not an easy call for us, but we’ve always said that we want to be invited into the conversation," Penich-Thacker told Phoenix New Times.
Ultimately, SOS made the decision to attend Ducey's announcement in order to "provide positive encouragement" for what they thought was a good proposal, if a vague one.
"The governor’s office is clearly hearing all of our activism, so let’s kind of say, 'Thank you for hearing us, we want to work on solutions,'" Penich-Thacker said. "But we do reserve judgment until we hear what this really is."
In contrast, the #RedForEd leadership was cold on Ducey's plan from the start.
No teacher activists from Arizona Educators United were present at Ducey's news conference. AEU leader Karvelis told Phoenix New Times that the governor's office did not invite him or other #RedForEd leaders. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Before the announcement, Penich-Thacker reached out to Karvelis to ask if he was attending Ducey's event. Karvelis told her he was teaching at his West Valley school and wasn't able to attend.
Penich-Thacker said that SOS is not merely taking Ducey's proposal at face value – they're reserving judgment until the governor's office releases more details of the proposal. And from her perspective, SOS is a purely grassroots effort – the group has no governing board signing off on decisions and no partisan agenda.
"We’re just trying to do the best on behalf of the parents and teachers we’re made up of," she said.
But she acknowledged that SOS supporters remain divided over whether SOS was too quick to back Ducey when the details of his pay-raise plan were pretty much unknown.
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"We have people who are literally saying, 'Oh my gosh, thank you for being willing to talk to anybody.' And then there’s people who are really mad," Penich-Thacker said. "So it really does run the gamut."
Although SOS has been a vocal supporter of the #RedForEd drive for higher pay, the organization's primary goal is to scuttle a law that expands school vouchers, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. After a successful signature campaign, SOS was able to get this school voucher expansion question – now called Proposition 305 – on the ballot for this fall's election.
SOS representatives like Penich-Thacker, a rhetoric professor at Arizona State University's downtown campus, have been adamant that no money goes toward funding an expanded-voucher scheme.
"We’ve always said that we’re not like a party operative," Penich-Thacker said. "We’re just an education group that wants to be a part of the education conversation."