The Smear Campaign Is Underway Against Arizona Teachers Before Strike

Teachers plan to strike starting on Thursday, April 26, and a campaign of criticism against the effort is already underway.
Teachers plan to strike starting on Thursday, April 26, and a campaign of criticism against the effort is already underway. Joseph Flaherty
Republicans and critics opposing the upcoming #RedForEd walkout have begun trying to discredit the teachers most involved and casting doubt on the motives of their leaders.

Arizona teachers will walk out of schools for better pay and school funding starting on Thursday, April 26. Many of the people mounting a counterattack on the strike effort — though not all — are Republican legislators, public relations operatives, or allies of Governor Doug Ducey. They want to help Ducey outflank the movement following the governor's unexpected proposal for a net 20 percent teacher raise.

Some of the attacks on teacher-organizers have been subtle; others, less so.

Scrutiny of the individual teachers behind Arizona Educators United (AEU), the grassroots group that spearheaded the impending strike, began earlier this month when opponents raised the idea that they had ulterior or partisan motives.

Ducey grew irritated when a reporter asked if he thought the movement was political, and suggested that #RedForEd leader Noah Karvelis, a music teacher at Tres Rios Service Academy, is a "political operative" because he also serves as the campaign manager for Kathy Hoffman, a Democratic candidate for Arizona state superintendent.

"Is that your definition of politics?" Ducey said. "Maybe that could find its way into one of these stories," he added.

Another teacher-organizer with AEU, Derek Harris of Dietz K-8 School in Tucson, recently found himself a target of conservative ire for past social media posts.

The Mike Broomhead Show (550-KFYI), followed by the conservative blog Washington Free Beacon, seized on the fact that Harris had written or shared Facebook posts skewering President Trump, the NRA, and Ducey.

"The movement has said in the past that they are not a political movement and they are only about getting raises for teachers and more money for education, but if you look at the social media past it tells a different story," the KFYI article says.

Harris wasn't fazed.

"I feel they certainly represented my views very well," he said of the KFYI and Beacon stories.

Harris argued that none of his Facebook posts had anything to do with the current fight over education in Arizona.

"All they did was find things that would’ve been distractions. They didn’t address any issues," Harris told Phoenix New Times. "I wouldn’t say it was an intelligent counterpoint to anything the movement’s been doing."

An April 16 article by the Beacon also combed through Karvelis' background to show the music teacher's ties to Democratic political organizing, including his role as Hoffman's campaign manager, a fact that Phoenix New Times reported in early March.

The Beacon showed he had volunteered for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign campaign, worked for Run for Something, a group that boosts Democratic candidates, as well as a progressive canvassing organization called Knock Every Door. Karvelis denied that politics play a role in the teachers movement, however, and told the Beacon reporter that AEU has avoided openly partisan meetings.

Both media outlets used the posts to throw doubt on the AEU claim that #RedForEd is an apolitical movement that is only focused to securing better pay for teachers, not a partisan agenda. AEU is not linked to any political organizations or parties, according to the group's FAQ. "Where our interests align with other groups, we try to work together. Our structure does not report to other organizations," it states.
Between Tuesday and Thursday, teachers inched closer to a strike, as AEU teachers voted for and against supporting a walkout in a statewide poll. But more pushback occurred when the public learned that before the votes were tallied, AEU teachers had scheduled rallies at the Capitol grounds for most of next week.

The chair of the Arizona GOP, Jonathan Lines, jumped on the news, said the vote seemed like a "rigged process."
Brandy Wells, the vice president of external affairs of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce wrote on Twitter, "Looks like the outcome here is pre-determined for teachers, no matter how they vote."

The implication? That the vote was a sham.

The mechanics of the AEU poll happened like this, according to AEU and the Arizona Education Association (AEA): Paper ballots were distributed to site liaisons, who are local campus leaders connected to AEU, and local education association representatives.

Teachers used a secure box to collect the paper ballots, which asked if educators would support a walkout to achieve their demands. Ballots did not ask educators their names, but they did ask if they were a member of AEU, AEA, both, or neither. All school employees were eligible to vote, teachers and support staff alike.

On Friday, the site liaisons counted the number of votes — in a public place, if possible, Harris said — and then either reported their final total to their local education association president or by phone to the AEA headquarters.

Opponents of AEU have speculated wildly about the vote. Matthew Benson, a conservative communications operative with Arizona P.R. firm Veridus, suggested that the legitimacy of the walkout vote was in question on Thursday.

"How are they mechanically carrying out a statewide election at 1,000-plus schools all over the state with paper ballots?" Benson said. "How are they conducting that? How are they conducting those votes? And with people who are laypeople at this? Even if they intended to do their best, I dispute heavily that they could carry it out."

On Friday, Benson admitted that he doesn't know enough about how they conducted the election to declare the vote was "rigged." But he continued to raise questions about it.

"It’s been a fait accompli from the start that they were going to strike. They have intended to strike from the beginning of this process," he told Phoenix New Times.

Because voting was carried out at school sites by AEU liaisons who connect campuses to the #RedForEd leadership, Benson believes that means teachers at school sites which are less involved or interested in #RedForEd did not cast votes.

"If they’re not having an election in every school, then we’re only hearing from those schools that are super-organized, and that’s not representative," Benson said.

However, the vote results appear to show that a large number of teachers may desire to strike, even if the vote didn't encompass every school in the state. The AEU teachers said that 78 percent of the 57,000 educators who cast ballots voted in favor of a walkout. Harris said that AEU is compiling additional details about the number of schools that participated.

Joe Thomas, AEA president, said prior to the vote that there was vigorous debate among educators for and against the idea of a strike.

Since the announcement on Thursday night, other Republicans have jumped on board to criticize the strike vote, sometimes using Ducey's proposed net 20 percent raise by 2020 as a counterpoint.

Representative T.J. Shope, a Republican from Coolidge who represents parts of Pinal and Gila counties, took issue with AEU's recommendation that members call the action a "walkout" and not a strike, arguing on Twitter that teachers should be proud to call it a strike if they're "proud to 'walkout' on children."   Meanwhile, this week the Republican Governors Association released the first ad in Ducey's re-election contest, highlighting the governor's plan for 20 percent teacher raises.

Criticism of the teachers and their movement may grow once the walkout begins on Thursday. In Kentucky, another state where teachers have protested over low pay, Governor Matt Bevin had to apologize after saying that hundreds of thousands of children left at home could have been sexually assaulted or exposed to drugs as a result of teacher walkouts.

On Friday, Arizona's top education official made a point to criticize the striking teachers. In an appearance on radio station KTAR-92.3 FM, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas said that while she supports teachers getting raises, she is urging them not to strike and is "very opposed to seeing them politicize our schools" through #RedForEd protests.

"They have a service to our family and our children," Douglas said. "And I think about, even when they all walk-in in red, I think about the little first-grader or second-grader going, ‘Ms. Smith, why are the teachers all in red?’ And they’re going to bring it into our classrooms, and I don’t think that’s fair."
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty