Back to Class: The Arizona Teachers' Strike Is Officially Over

Arizona teachers are calling off the strike that closed schools around the state for six days.
Arizona teachers are calling off the strike that closed schools around the state for six days. Joseph Flaherty
One week after they walked out of schools, Arizona teachers announced they are going back to class.

Leaders of the grassroots group Arizona Educators United said on Thursday that because lawmakers approved an education spending bill, they are calling off a walkout that closed campuses around the state since April 26.
After a marathon budget debate that lasted until the early hours of Thursday morning, Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a teacher pay increase plan that pumps $644 million into schools to support a cumulative 20 percent raise by 2020. AEU leaders said that they couldn't support Ducey's plan because it doesn't do enough to restore recession-era school funding cuts.

Republican legislators excoriated Democrats for voting no on the education spending bill. When teacher paychecks start to rise, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said, "Remember who voted for it and remember who voted against it."

Despite the massive walkout, which closed schools for hundreds of thousands of students, AEU leaders only achieved one of their five ambitious demands, including the restoration of $1 billion in school funding, a pay raise structure for senior educators, and no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding hit the national mean.

Their demand for a 20 percent raise was only met in a partial sense. In some ways, Ducey's shrewd decision to announce the pay raise plan undercut the teachers' momentum just as AEU was on the brink of a walkout.

At the Capitol, the #RedForEd crowds that occupied the grounds for the past week were thinning out and people were gradually packing up their tents. But at the same time, teachers spoke of the walkout as a small step in the right direction, describing it as a victorious battle in a wider war.

AEU leader Rebecca Garelli told educators in a video that the passage of the K-12 spending package "means our job is done, and we're going to return to our classrooms tomorrow."

A rallying cry among #RedForEd teachers throughout the walkout was that they wanted to win the fight for their students. AEU leader Dylan Wegela said that teachers can look forward to going back to their students.

click to enlarge Teachers issued "report cards" to legislators based on their stance on school funding and teacher pay. - JOSEPH FLAHERTY
Teachers issued "report cards" to legislators based on their stance on school funding and teacher pay.
Joseph Flaherty
"When you go back to class, it's gonna be an amazing experience and are going to be more empowered for it," Wegela said. "And that is going to be seen in your school, you're going to feel that walking around the hallway."

In a press conference on Tuesday evening, AEU leaders announced that they had pushed the Legislature to the breaking point on school funding, and pledged that they would end the walkout once the budget passed. But as the negotiations dragged into the afternoon on Wednesday, it became clear that teachers were not ready to go back to class until the budget was a done deal.

For many school districts, what they thought would be a five-day strike became a six-day closure as administrators reversed course to abruptly cancel classes on Thursday.

Some #RedForEd supporters felt that AEU was walking away too soon from the budget negotiation. But Mina Bhagdev, a chemistry teacher at Hamilton High School in the Chandler Unified School District said that they can chalk up the strike as a victory because now people are paying attention to teachers.

“I see it as a victory," she said. "No one was talking about this – nobody. Now, people are talking about it, there’s a spotlight on it, and finally we may be able to get something done.”

Her colleague Diana Weaver, who teaches world history and AP government at Chandler High School, explained that teachers are looking toward primaries and the general election.

"It’s not what we want," she said of the education budget Ducey signed this morning. "But we understand that this didn’t get this way overnight, and it probably isn’t going to be solved overnight.”

Administrators with the Chandler Unified High School District, Phoenix Union High School District, and Mesa Public Schools announced that they will reopen schools Friday.

Teachers were still milling around the Capitol or hanging out in the tents that district employees set up on the lawn, but many of them were planning to return to class.

“I think we all miss our kids. That’s what we left for,” Kelley Fisher told Phoenix New Times. Fisher teaches kindergarten and serves as an AEU leader and a member of the Arizona Education Association’s board of directors. She was exhausted and running on adrenaline after spending all night at the Capitol with other teachers who packed the gallery during the late-night budget debate.

Another teacher approached Fisher on the Capitol grounds, recognizing her from the updates Fisher would post via live Facebook videos during the budget negotiations. (“I feel like I know you!” the woman said. “I just have a big mouth,” Fisher said. “And I’m not afraid to use it.")

The AEU teachers did not get much of what they wanted from the Legislature – at the 11th hour, Democrats offered numerous amendments to the education budget, which Republicans proceeded to kill, one after another. Teachers will have to keep organizing if they want to make more progress, Fisher said.

“We know they’re terrified of us,” Fisher said. “And we have the power — 53,000 people on a Facebook page, in a matter of weeks? We are the ones with the power, and we’re ready to hold onto that power and make the changes we have to.”
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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