From left: Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association; Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas; Arizona Educators United leader Noah Karvelis; Governor Doug Ducey.EXPAND
From left: Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association; Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas; Arizona Educators United leader Noah Karvelis; Governor Doug Ducey.
Gage Skidmore/flickr; Joseph Flaherty; New Times illustration

How Will Arizona's Teacher Strike Showdown End?

The #RedForEd movement is now on the brink of its planned strike — with very little idea of how the showdown will end.

Teachers are going to walk out of schools starting on Thursday. Dozens of districts have announced that they will pre-emptively close school sites, some for both Thursday and Friday. Teacher-organizers have said that the walkout will go on until they achieve their demands.

Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, said that when thousands of teachers fill the Capitol grounds on Thursday, lawmakers will be under tremendous pressure to reach a deal to end the walkout — especially if the strike drags on for more than a few days.

"If there’s no response from the governor and the Legislature, and no sit-down meeting and a discussion of the demands, I think everybody keeps coming," Thomas said. "And I think we end up in a prolonged job action, and it’s up to the governor to really step in. I think this goes on as long as he wants it to."

But can teachers hold on during a prolonged strike while keeping the public in their corner?

It's one of the unknown factors that we'll only learn once the walkout begins. Every day that students are out of school means parents will be inconvenienced and student schedules will be disrupted. Students who eat breakfast and lunch at school could go hungry, although community organizations have scrambled to organize food drives and many districts plan to serve meals on Thursday and Friday. Most school districts will add on any school days missed because of the walkout to the end of the year, which will conflict with some family vacation plans.

The teacher strike in West Virginia this year lasted for nine days, ending when the state legislature enacted a 5 percent raise for all state employees, including teachers.

The strike in Oklahoma also lasted for nine days, but fizzled out when it became clear that lawmakers would not meet teachers' demands. Nevertheless, teachers wrangled an average raise of $6,000 while support staff got a $1,250 pay increase, with new school revenue paid for by taxes on oil and gas production, cigarettes, and new gambling options.

These two strikes in Republican-held states are road maps for what could unfold in Arizona.

"The answer seems to be in the other states: Parents will support them, but it’s probably not a gift they’re going to give the teachers forever," said David Berliner, professor emeritus at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. "If they have to find a place for their kid for the day, they’ll lose a little of their support over a two-week period."

The counterattack on the people and organizations behind the walkout has already begun by Republicans and the governor's allies. Both sides are digging trenches. At this point, neither seem willing to give in.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has proposed a 20 percent teacher increase by 2020, but his plan has come under heavy criticism since the announcement on April 19. An assessment by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee said because that Ducey's teacher pay plan relies on optimistic projections of economic growth to fund the raise, Arizona could see a $300 million budget shortfall. The governor's office disputes the budget analysis.

On Tuesday, top Democrats in the House and Senate sent a letter to Ducey urging him to reverse income tax cuts for the wealthiest Arizonans and close loopholes in order to pump money into the education budget.

"Gambling on economic growth and taking money from other priorities can only get us part way toward our goal, and even then, it certainly won't keep us there when our economy inevitably cycles down," the Democratic lawmakers wrote.

Ducey, however, made a campaign pledge not to raise taxes.

Given the fractious debate over Ducey's proposal, which educators decry as a half-measure, it is unlikely that AEU educators will achieve all of their demands. So, what are the conditions where AEU leaders would tell educators to go back to school in the event that they don't meet their goals? And could they claim a victory?

AEU leader and Littleton Elementary District music teacher Noah Karvelis — who has come under fire from Arizona conservatives for his ties to Democratic political organizing — would only say that the people in the #RedForEd movement will decide what happens after Thursday.

"We need to see movement on our demands," Karvelis wrote in an email. "We would be in discussion with our group about what educators want to do and what they think of any proposals that come from the Legislature."

Even if the Arizona Legislature passed Ducey's plan, the pay raise proposal is unacceptable to #RedForEd teachers, according to Karvelis. Enacting the governor's so-called 20x2020 plan would not end the strike, he said. Nor would the organizers end the walkout if the Legislature does nothing, he said.

"Our schools are still underfunded, our students don't have the resources that they need, and our educators still don't have the pay raises that they need," Karvelis said.

Arizona's median teacher pay is nearly the lowest in the country when adjusted for cost of living. Elementary teachers here earn around $44,990 and high school teachers earn $48,306, according to the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University. After the recession, Arizona lawmakers enacted some of the deepest cuts to per-pupil education spending in the entire nation, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

One possible endgame to the walkout is a referendum that kicks the decision on school funding to voters, either because of a measure passed by the Legislature or a citizen initiative led by AEU and AEA. In that scenario, Thomas explained, Ducey would avoid having to sign a tax increase, and the Legislature would only need a majority to refer the education spending plan to voters, as opposed to the two-thirds supermajority needed to raise taxes.

Whatever the outcome, Thomas said that lawmakers will have to quickly find a way to meet teachers' demands and resolve the walkout.

"I can’t imagine that there will be no solution out of this in an election year," Thomas said. "I think the movement is strong and resolute in the desire to bring resources in for their students."

"I’m struggling to imagine anybody with the ability to withstand the pressure they’re about to feel over the number of days this could go on," he added.

Yet Thomas' statement may also apply to the #RedForEd Movement. The longer the strike inconveniences parents and the state economy, the more pressure will be put on the teachers, schools, and #RedForEd leaders. If there is no deal at the Legislature by Friday, the teacher-organizers will have to rally the troops again on Monday to push the walkout ahead.

If lawmakers don't want to sign off on a new revenue source or significant school funding increases, they could take a chance and wait to see if enthusiasm for a sustained strike dwindles.

Geography will be a challenge in keeping rural districts energized for the strike. During the rapidly evolving teacher protests, some schools have struggled to stay connected with the AEU leadership, who mostly live in metro Phoenix and Tucson. Another unknown is whether a significant number of charter schools will close down on Thursday because of the walkout. When asked if AEU expects charter school teachers to go on strike, organizer Derek Harris simply said, "We don't know."

Harris said that when charter teachers came to AEU asking how they can get involved in #RedForEd, organizers warned the charter teachers to "be aware of your own situations." Charters operate independently, and unlike district superintendents who have announced district-wide school closures, charter administrators seem to be making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Steve Watson, the school superintendent of Maricopa County, said that although the strike will disrupt some routines, school districts are prepared for at least several days of walkouts. "It’s definitely difficult — that’s the whole point of a strike — but at the same time I think they’ve given people enough time so that families and parents are prepared for Thursday, Friday, and maybe Monday," Watson said.

Less than 48 hours before the walkout, AEU organizers are carefully eyeing the Legislature, and teachers say they're ready to educate parents about why they chose to walkout in order to rebut their critics. Alhambra Elementary District teacher Rebecca Garelli explained that while AEU leaders are ready to sit down with lawmakers, they won't cheer until their demands are met with "a real plan."

"We’re still missing a billon dollars in funding," Garelli said. "I do not think we’re going to claim major victory until those funds are restored."

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