#RedforEd Solidarity: West Virginia Strike Could Be Tipping Point for Arizona Teachers

The Arizona Education Association announces this morning that it will endorse Democrat David Garcia in this year's governor's  race.
The Arizona Education Association announces this morning that it will endorse Democrat David Garcia in this year's governor's race. Joseph Flaherty
For Resha Gentry-Ballance, the murmurs started online.

A few days ago, her colleague shared a Facebook post about the teacher strike in West Virginia. Email chains and social media threads followed. Soon Gentry-Ballance, who leads the classroom teachers' association in the Phoenix Union High School District, was listening as a coworker explained the mobilizing strategies that made West Virginia’s strike successful.

“Everyone in West Virginia walked out,” Gentry-Ballance said, as if in disbelief. “It was a huge, big statewide action. To get that kind of support, that’s really amazing.”

In some ways, Arizona’s educational system was already a powder keg. The stunning nine-day strike in West Virginia seems to have lit the match.

This morning, Arizona educators showed up to school wearing red, a message to state leaders that the status quo in school funding and teacher pay is unsustainable. The plan began after Arizona teachers watched West Virginia schools shut down for nine days — the longest teacher strike in state history — while unions successfully wrangled a 5 percent pay increase from reluctant state legislators.

When asked about a possible strike at a press conference on Wednesday morning, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said that statewide actions take many forms. He explained that in West Virginia, there were lengthy discussions in the lead-up to the strike.

"I'm not saying it won't happen," Thomas said. "I've not see this many teachers this frustrated since I've been in Arizona."

Thomas expects the #RedForEd actions to gain momentum. At the press conference, the teachers' organization announced their endorsement of Democrat David Garcia for governor, who said that if elected he will be a champion for educators.

Dylan Wegela, one of the organizers behind today’s #RedForEd show of solidarity, said that the campaign has also created a forum for educators to decide what comes next. “I think people are willing to do whatever it takes to get the pay raise that we deserve, and to fix the problems with the AZ Merit letter grades, and to make the schools are better for our teachers and for our students,” Wegela said.

“To make a livable wage for teachers is the main goal,” he added.

Wegela is a teacher at Marc T. Atkinson Middle School in Phoenix. He moved to Arizona from Michigan two years ago. Ever since he arrived in Arizona, he said he's noticed "an energy that people are ready for change."

The question is: What happens next?

In West Virginia, union leaders negotiated directly with the state legislature to secure their pay raise, which the governor signed on Tuesday.

In Arizona, pay-raise decisions are generally siloed — individual school districts have the final say on teacher paychecks — but all the same, schools still are funded by the state government. Over the last decade, Arizona has cut tons of funding from the education budget, and it has reached the point where the average teacher's salary here is pretty much the lowest in the country.

"This is my twelfth year teaching and truly, things have gotten worse every year when it comes to the state's budget and funding public education," said Amy Ball, a kindergarten teacher and the Madison Classroom Teachers Association president.

A statewide teacher strike could light a fire under Arizona politicians, forcing them to restore the hundreds of millions in funding that disappeared after the 2008 financial crisis.

Governor Doug Ducey has been under tremendous pressure in his re-election year to deliver a solution to the education crisis. In his state of the state address, Ducey trumpeted a plan that would inject $371 million in per-pupil dollars to public school budgets to restore some of the funding that was cut during the 2008 recession. The governor argued that it would ease the teacher shortage and lead to pay raises.

However, Thomas says that Ducey’s plan is too little, too late.

“The governor has had four years to come up with a long-term plan, and I don’t see it — I see in the year that he’s about to be re-elected a plan to put some available dollars into districts,” Thomas said in an interview on Monday. “Districts have needed those dollars every year he’s been in office.”

Much like Arizona, the educational environment in West Virginia was pretty terrible for teachers, and poised to get worse because of changes to the public-employee health care system. It forced teachers to the picket lines, even in a right-to-work state like West Virginia where they were technically breaking the law by shutting down schools.

It’s enough to make Arizona teachers consider their options at least, Gentry-Ballance said. Still, sometimes she sees anxiety among would-be activist teachers.

“Just in my own district, I have colleagues who are concerned about speaking up because they’re concerned about retaliation,” she said. “I’m fortunate enough to have a strong association in Phoenix Union High School District.”

As a result, Gentry-Ballance didn’t hesitate when asked if she was going to wear red on Tuesday. “Oh, you bet,” she said.

Plenty of other people are with her. The Arizona Educators United group on Facebook, which kicked off Wednesday’s #RedForEd event, now boasts an astonishing 16,500-plus members. On Tuesday night, teachers kicked around the idea of a strike in a long thread where educators voiced opinions ranging from complete readiness to trepidation.

Wegela said that this kind of debate will drive whatever happens after this week.

“We’re going to see what the group wants, and we’re going to go with whatever the group wants,” Wegela 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