The Passion of #RedForEd: State Got Hundreds of Public Comments on Teacher Strike

Teachers gather at Chase Field on the first day of the Arizona teachers' strike on April 26. The strike produced hundreds of comments submitted to the Department of Education.
Teachers gather at Chase Field on the first day of the Arizona teachers' strike on April 26. The strike produced hundreds of comments submitted to the Department of Education. Tim Vasquez
It's late April. You're an Arizona resident with strong feelings about the teachers wearing red who have closed schools and filled the Capitol grounds. Where do you turn?

As it happens, a lot of people decided to contact the Arizona Department of Education to express their views about the walkout for increased pay and education funding, which closed schools between April 26 and May 3.

According to a spokesperson, about 190 people contacted the department between April 24 and May 9 to express their disapproval of the #RedForEd strike. Meanwhile, about 175 people contacted the office to say that they supported the strike.

Dan Godzich, a spokesperson for the Department, said that under state statute he cannot disclose whether the Department received any formal complaints that could lead to investigations or discipline against individual teachers who went on strike.

Some of the many informal comments to the Department went beyond pro- or anti-strike views, with some people requesting more specific information, he said.

"Many of the other calls and emails fell into a different spectrum as in: wanting to speak to Superintendent, asking about processes, asking about possible consequences to schools, teachers and students, etc..." Godzich wrote in an email.

The #RedForEd comments were at least double the usual volume of emails from the public received by the Department during a normal two-week period, Godzich said. Some people contacted the department first by phone and later followed up via email, possibly creating duplicates in the tally of people for and against the strike.

Arizona's top education official repeatedly condemned the #RedForEd teachers, possibly encouraging people to call her office and leave opinions.

click to enlarge Diane Douglas - GAGE SKIDMORE
Diane Douglas
Gage Skidmore
Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas went on an all-out media blitz before the strike. She harshly criticized the striking teachers and called the statewide walkout "illegal," referring to a 1971 opinion from the Arizona attorney general.

Douglas also said that her department would investigate striking teachers if aggrieved Arizonans filed formal complaints against them.

Governor Doug Ducey remained pretty much silent on the strike, and did his best to ignore #RedForEd actions as he negotiated a teacher pay-raise deal with Republican lawmakers.

Godzich said that he couldn't comment on Douglas' media storm or its potential impact on people who complained to the department.

"[T]hat would just be speculation, since I have no way of knowing what motivated people to call or not call," he wrote.

Douglas suggested that by walking out, teachers were risking a trip in front of the State Board of Education, which has the power to strip teachers of their license.

Before the strike, Douglas sat for a lengthy interview with 3TV/CBS5, fielded questions from reporters at a Board of Education meeting ("Don't go on strike, do not walk out on our children and our families," she advised), and told talk hosts on KTAR 92.3 FM that she opposes teachers who "politicize our schools" by protesting. After the walkout began, Douglas told ABC15 that seeing teachers marching in red "saddened" her.

When asked about Douglas' oft-repeated line that teachers who walk out could be investigated, Godzich said that the Department has no choice but to investigate when citizens make a formal complaint.

Godzich wouldn't say how many, or if any, formal complaints were made that could lead to an investigation against a teacher.

The Department denied a public records request for any formal complaints. He said that the information is protected by state statute.

"Informally, there were many calls and emails made by citizens issuing complaints," he wrote.
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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