Arizona Walkout Continues as Lawmakers Strike Deal on 20 Percent Raise

Arizona educators swarmed the Capitol for a second day of protest during a statewide school walkout.
Arizona educators swarmed the Capitol for a second day of protest during a statewide school walkout. Joseph Flaherty
Soon after Arizona lawmakers adjourned for the weekend, Marisol Garcia walked on stage to break the news. Tens of thousands of educators had marched for hours in the heat to demand a response from the Legislature, and they were furious, booing loudly in the direction of the Capitol's shiny dome.

It was a theme during the second day of a statewide teacher strike across Arizona — the idea that legislators had fled when faced with a sea of teachers in red.

"It's just disrespectful," Garcia, the vice president of the Arizona Education Association (AEA), told Phoenix New Times.

But on Friday afternoon, foot-dragging politicians showed signs of life: Governor Doug Ducey announced that the House and Senate leadership had struck a deal to pass Ducey's net 20 percent pay raise.

In a statement with House Speaker J.D. Mesnard and Senate President Steve Yarbrough, the lawmakers said they are working through the weekend to introduce a budget next week.

"Today, we are pleased to announce that this plan is a reality," they said in the joint statement. "Arizona is delivering on its commitment to our students and teachers." They provided no new details on the source of the money, a major point of contention for the #RedForEd teachers who rejected Ducey's plan earlier this month.

The deal didn't mention the AEA or #RedForEd, whose leaders had asked to negotiate directly with the governor. In a statement of their own, leaders of both groups immediately slammed Ducey’s announcement.

Joe Thomas, AEA president, and Noah Karvelis, leader of Arizona Educators United, said that Ducey has ignored them and refused to solve the education crisis. “We know that we have been down this road before,” they said. “He makes promises that he can’t keep. We just can’t trust him."

“When education advocates came together to fix the problem lawmakers refused to address, suddenly we get an announcement of a plan without any details,” Thomas and Karvelis said.

Earlier, thousands of teachers returned to the Capitol for the second day of speeches, food trucks, pep rally music, and photos wearing #RedForEd.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety estimated that 4,000 people attended the rally on Friday, fewer than the astonishing turnout of about 50,000 for the first day of the strike. Aerial photography showed a mass of humanity clad entirely in red as they flooded the street on Thursday during a march from Chase Field to the Capitol.

Before Ducey's announcement on Friday, Garcia said that #RedForEd teacher-organizers have heard nothing from lawmakers on their demands, which include a 20 percent raise for all educators and school funding that matches what was cut after the recession. Watching the Legislature leave for the weekend was a blow, she said.

click to enlarge Leaders of #RedForEd group Arizona Educators United and the Arizona teacher's union on stage near the Capitol on Friday. - JOSEPH FLAHERTY
Leaders of #RedForEd group Arizona Educators United and the Arizona teacher's union on stage near the Capitol on Friday.
Joseph Flaherty
Garcia added that site liaisons will discuss next steps, including whether teachers statewide will walk out on Monday, too. Every option is on the table, according to her. "This movement is not top-down, it's bottom-up," Garcia said.

"Every option is on the table, and I think that we've always said that from the beginning — we didn't want to walk out, we didn't want to have to do walk-ins," she said.

Earlier, Thomas took to the stage and told the crowd that “the easy part was coming down here."

"You saw what they did yesterday — they turned tail and fled," Thomas said.

He encouraged teachers to return to the Capitol on Monday. If lawmakers continue to do nothing when the Legislature is back in session, Thomas said that educators should take the school funding and teacher pay to the voters.

"If they continue to ignore us, then I think we have to take a ballot initiative out and we have to do it ourselves," Thomas said. "We let the voters decide if they’re in a different place than these people are."

The #RedForEd leaders often talk about their actions to pressure lawmakers as a lesson plan, with structured responses based on what the lawmakers say or do. In this case, the ballot measure is one more step in the lesson plan, Thomas explained.

click to enlarge Although rally organizers moved up the start time, the temperature was climbing past 90 degrees on Friday. - JOSEPH FLAHERTY
Although rally organizers moved up the start time, the temperature was climbing past 90 degrees on Friday.
Joseph Flaherty
“If they don’t respond to the lesson the second time, then we take the power into our own hands and we do this for ourselves and we win this for our students," Thomas told the crowd.

The idea of #RedForEd using a ballot initiative to accomplish its school funding demands is gaining steam as the chances of the Legislature passing a broad education budget fade.

The liberal-minded lobbying firm Creosote Partners announced on Friday afternoon that an "education coalition" including the Arizona Center for Economic Progress is filing a ballot initiative called the "Invest in Education Act."

The text of the initiative that was filed on Friday afternoon with the Arizona Secretary of State proposes raising income taxes by 3.46 percent for individuals who earn more than $250,000 and by 4.46 percent for individuals who earn more than $500,000. Those dollars will go toward the classroom site fund, a primary source of Arizona state dollars that go toward individual schools. The initiative text says that 60 percent of the new revenue from taxes would go to teacher base salary increases and 40 percent would go to maintenance and operations.

Creosote Partners has a press conference on the initiative scheduled for Monday morning at the Capitol Rose Garden.

The initiative also stipulates that support staff are included in raises funded by the classroom site fund, fulfilling a prominent ask of the #RedForEd teachers. They argued that Ducey's proposal left out raises for non-teaching staff like counselors and computer technicians.

Joshua Buckley is listed as the initiative's chair and David Lujan, director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, is the treasurer. The initiative's authors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

AEU leader Noah Karvelis said that site liaisons are polling members about whether they would support the initiative.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which has boosted Ducey's 20 percent pay raise plan, immediately came out against this ballot initiative. "Should this measure secure a spot on the ballot, we will oppose it strongly, and we will urge Arizona voters to do the same," the Chamber wrote on Twitter.

Putting a measure on the ballot during the November 2018 election will require a massive effort to brave sweltering temperatures and gather over 150,000 signatures by July 5. It's also unclear whether the "Invest in Education Act" initiative will be able to rely on the droves of teachers who walked out of schools in protest, or whether the #RedForEd leaders like Thomas will back this initiative or pursue their own.

Either way, there's a "now or never" feeling among educators who have been squeezed ever since the state cut millions of dollars from the education budget after 2008 that were never restored.

Denisa Smiley missed yesterday's Capitol rally because of traffic, but the music teacher made it to the second day of the walkout. A 15-year veteran of the Cartwright School District, Smiley has instruments in her classroom that have been there since the 1940s. "I would love to have a new xylophone set," she said.

She often buys supplies for her classroom, and has considered leaving Arizona to earn more money elsewhere. Smiley's mother is also a teacher, and moved to Crownpoint, New Mexico, a few years ago in order to earn more money.

Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation when you factor in the cost of living here — elementary school teachers earn a median annual wage of around $44,990, and high school teachers earn around $48,306, according to the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University. Median teacher pay in Arizona is far below what educators make in neighboring states like New Mexico and Utah.

"I've been a teacher for all these years and I have student loans to pay back," 45-year-old Smiley said. "I worked for this, and it's really hard for my husband and I when we would like to have a home of our own, instead of living in apartments."

Teachers have criticized Ducey's proposal to raise teacher pay by a cumulative 20 percent by the 2020 school year for being short-sighted and lacking a dedicated revenue source. The governor's office said that Ducey met with educators yesterday to hear their concerns, and before the deal was announced on Friday, the governor had implored lawmakers to pass the plan and vetoed a series of House bills in the process.

The #RedForEd leaders, however, have said that they need a broader solution that includes support staff. Karvelis, a teacher at Tres Rios Service Academy, has said that they won't consider Ducey's proposal a victory if it passes.

Plenty of other teachers feel the same way.

"We need something that goes beyond 2020," said Michael Hoffman, a 28-year-old English teacher at South Mountain High School. He said that he may return to the Capitol on Monday depending on whether the Phoenix Union High School District closes schools like they did on Thursday and Friday.

Hoffman and many others at the rally emphasized that they would much rather be teaching than marching in the heat or walking out of classrooms.

"I left my kids right in the middle of a unit that I worked hard on," he said. "I'm doing To Kill a Mockingbird, and I'm right at the cliffhanger with my kids."

Also on Friday, the Tempe Union High School District announced to parents that all seven of its high schools would be closed on Monday.
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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