The teachers who rallied at the Capitol for increased pay and school funding say they will vote on a walkout this week.
The teachers who rallied at the Capitol for increased pay and school funding say they will vote on a walkout this week.
Joseph Flaherty

Accept Raise or Walk Out? #RedForEd Leaders Will Poll Educators This Week

The grassroots group leading the fight for better teacher pay and school funding will vote between Tuesday and Thursday on whether to walk out of classrooms.

The leaders of Arizona Educators United are aiming to continue the momentum of last week's school "walk-ins" in which around 100,000 educators participated as they consider how to respond to a proposed 9 percent teacher pay raise this year from Governor Doug Ducey.

Organizing sessions and canvassing meetings around the state will follow the vote in order to bring the community on their side, according to Tucson teacher and #RedForEd leader Derek Harris. Harris and the other leaders of grassroots organization Arizona Educators United made the announcement in a video posted to their group on Sunday night.

Standing alongside other AEU teachers, Harris described the vote as a transition from #RedForEd to #RedAlert: "If the legislature does something funny, we want to be sure that you’re paying attention and ready to do anything that may need to be done."

The AEU leaders will provide more information on the voting today, according to Harris. AEU leadership did not specify a date when the walkout might take place.

Arizona teachers are fighting for increased pay in the vein of West Virginia and Oklahoma educators, who recently went on strike.

After weeks of silence on the #RedForEd demands, Ducey surprised many when he released a proposal on Thursday to increase teacher pay by 9 percent this year and to eventually raise teacher pay by a net 20 percent by 2020.

AEU leaders were deeply skeptical when Ducey suddenly reversed his stance on providing teachers with a significant raise — the governor left out any mention of support staff and has yet to describe in detail where the money for these raises would come from.

During his news conference, Ducey was reluctant to acknowledge the role #RedForEd pressure or the looming shadow of a walkout played in his announcement. In response to a reporter's question, Ducey only said, "I’ve been listening and I’ve been impressed. But the winners today are the teachers in the state of Arizona."

In light of the governor's proposal, educators are reevaluating how to proceed with a walkout. A week ago, AEU said that they would announce a "long-term" walkout date sometime in the near future. But Ducey's proposal introduces an unstable element in the battle to solve Arizona's bottom-of-the-pack teacher pay and school funding.

AEU leaders say that the walkout dates they teased before Ducey dropped his proposal were flexible and never set in stone.

The AEU leaders said they spent the weekend deliberating, and decided that Ducey's proposal doesn't measure up to their demands. The governor's plan omits any new source of revenue to bankroll additional school funding that would bring Arizona's dismal rate of per-pupil spending up to the national standard.

“This proposal falls short for us in a lot of different ways, and it’s problematic,” AEU leader Noah Karvelis said in the video. “One of the main things is we don’t have a sustainable revenue source to fund these raises. What that means is that these are empty promises — we don’t know where that money will come from to sustain this over time.”

In an email, Ducey spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato wrote that the governor "is acting to give teachers the raise they deserve."

"In January, we were projecting a cash deficit — thanks to a growing economy, we now have a $272 million surplus," Scarpinato wrote. "We are investing these dollars in our teachers."

The vote on a walkout produced a familiar split reaction among teachers in the AEU Facebook group. Some teachers said that their schools and districts were ready to walk out tomorrow if directed, and expressed frustration at the slow deliberation process. Others applauded the AEU leadership for ensuring that teachers have their say on a walkout before what could be a turbulent period of school closures.

Rebecca Garelli, an AEU leader and a seventh grade math and science teacher in the Alhambra Elementary District in Phoenix, told educators on Facebook that they wanted to hear from teachers before moving forward.

"We want to hear your voice in this movement," Garelli said.

Ever since 2008, Arizona teachers have struggled under huge recession-era cuts to the state education budget — the largest in the nation, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. High school and elementary teachers here earn a median annual income that ranks 48th and 49th in the nation, respectively, according to the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University.

It's clear that the AEU leadership isn't ready to put away the red signs and T-shirts simply because Ducey has offered a 20 percent raise, and a vote on a walkout signals that the fight isn't over yet.

Now that Ducey has partially conceded on one of their demands, AEU leaders are expanding the conversation from the limited topic of teacher raises. They emphasize that students and support staff need increased school funding in order to repair crumbling school buildings, purchase new textbooks, and retain qualified staff long-term.

“My students deserve lower classroom sizes," AEU leader Dylan Wegela told educators in the Facebook video. "And I don’t know about you, but I can’t walk back into my classroom without getting more for our students in this movement.”

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