Update: W. Va. Teachers Get Raise; Arizona Educators Gear Up for Similar Protest

Arizona teachers are getting ready to demand better pay and school funding. They're taking cues from their counterparts in West Virginia, seen here at the state capitol on February 17, who have been on strike for over a week.
Arizona teachers are getting ready to demand better pay and school funding. They're taking cues from their counterparts in West Virginia, seen here at the state capitol on February 17, who have been on strike for over a week. Wear Red for Public Ed/Facebook; Rich McGervey/flickr
Update, 1:17 p.m.
West Virginia’s governor is expected to sign a bill that passed the legislature on Tuesday to give teachers and other state workers a 5 percent raise, effectively ending the nine-day walkout. Will the strike in West Virginia encourage Arizona teachers to do the same? Read on below.

Schools are still closed all across West Virginia during a teacher strike while educators negotiate for better pay and benefits. Oklahoma might be the next state where teachers stage walkouts.

Now, Arizona educators are asking: Could it happen here?

Last week, Noah Karvelis, a music teacher at Tres Rios Elementary, got into a discussion with the president of the Arizona Education Association over Twitter. Karvelis said that his colleagues were ready to take statewide action, or possibly even strike, after watching what was happening in West Virginia.

Joe Thomas, the union president, suggested that they should start local. Why not have teachers wear red to show their willingness to get involved, he said?

Sure enough, on Wednesday, teachers around Arizona are planning to wear red to send a message that they want immediate action from their elected representatives to resolve the school funding crisis.

"All of a sudden, it went from this idea that Joe pitched on Twitter to me and my friends, and just exploded from there once we made the Facebook event and started pushing it and tweeting it," Karvelis said.

The #RedForEd day is significant beyond the display of solidarity and a special hashtag — it shows teachers here are getting organized and testing the waters for West Virginia-style action. On the Facebook event, almost 1,000 people have said they're planning to participate. The organizers have framed Wednesday's event as a precursor to future steps.

"West Virginia is showing the entire nation what can happen when teachers stand in solidarity," the event says. "Arizona's teachers are taking note and realizing that now is the time for us to start organizing our campuses and districts."

#RedforEd so far has emerged organically among their Facebook group of educators, said Derek Harris, a teacher at Dietz K-8 School in Tucson and one of the teachers behind the event. They want to keep it that way. "We’re hoping this becomes something very teacher-driven, very educator-driven," he said.

Harris said that within their coalition of educators, they don't have a concrete agenda yet, and there's no plan for a strike. Mostly, they want to organize and draw attention to the intertwined funding and teacher shortage crises.

"If we have one teacher out at our school, that can put the entire school in turmoil, because there’s not always enough subs to take care of everything," Harris said.

"But no matter what happens with funding or how many teachers get hired or who’s running the state, we still have to teach every student in Arizona," he added. "We have to be sure that we’re providing the best education that we can."

Teachers in West Virginia are demanding better pay and improved public health insurance options. The strike is now in its second week after teachers in all 55 counties walked out on February 22, arguing that a gradual 2 percent pay raise recently signed by the governor was too paltry to make up for cost-of-living increases. West Virginia teachers are also on strike because of changes to public-employee health insurance plans, which could cause premiums to rise for some families.

Schools remain closed while West Virginia legislators are desperately trying to reach a deal that union leaders can agree on — they're asking for a 5 percent raise and improvements to the health insurance plan.

Educators in other states have taken notice. In Oklahoma, another deep-red state, there are rumblings about a similar teacher strike.

Interesting to note is that Arizona and Oklahoma currently are neck-and-neck in the national race to see which state can pay its teachers the least. The two states are vying for 50th and 49th in teacher pay, depending on how you factor in cost of living, according to the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU. Moreover, the similarities between Arizona and West Virginia are uncanny when it comes to teacher pay and an ongoing shortage of qualified educators.

"All three states saw significant reductions in school funding once the recession started, and none have seen that investment restored into public education," said Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas.

Any mention of Arizona's education system is usually paired with adjectives as heavy as "dismal" and "dire," for good reason. Teachers here are the lowest-paid in the nation, education funding still hasn't been fully restored since Arizona slashed it during the recession, and a teacher shortage has reached crisis proportions.

Wear Red for Public Ed/Facebook
So, could a statewide teacher strike happen here? "As frustrated as teachers are right now, I don’t know the answer to that question," Thomas said.

"I think it would be the result of really poor leadership at the state level, and teachers and support staff thinking that there’s no other way that they can draw attention to their students and their schools than by walking out," he added.

And while it appears that Arizonan teachers are slowly moving to follow West Virginia's lead, skeptics will no doubt argue that the situation is a bit different here.

West Virginia teachers are especially concerned with potentially higher premiums under the state's health insurance program, known as the Public Employees Insurance Agency — something of a sidebar compared to the issues affecting Arizona. Naysayers will also argue that a strike could interrupt efforts to resuscitate Arizona's school funding by Governor Doug Ducey.

Teacher advocates, however, argue that Ducey's proposed funding amounts to a drop in the bucket. And if you're a teacher, why sit on your hands as the governor promises to deliver when all the while your counterparts are striking effectively in Appalachia?

Karvelis, who is also the campaign manager for Kathy Hoffman, a candidate for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, said that the situation in West Virginia has been a game-changer. Strikes happen in cities like Chicago all the time, but it's "totally different" to watch educators strike in West Virginia, he explained.

"That emboldened all of us," Karvelis said. "Especially because they’re in a right-to-work state, they have a Republican governor, and they’re getting paid better than what we’re getting paid."

When Oklahomans started making noise about a strike, it added more fuel, Karvelis said. "Then, I think all teachers at least in the back of their mind were starting to think, okay, we need to do something, even if it’s just wearing red shirts on the same day," Karvelis said.
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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