Arizona's striking teachers scored a victory — not an unequivocal victory, but a victory nonetheless.EXPAND
Arizona's striking teachers scored a victory — not an unequivocal victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Gage Skidmore/flickr; Joseph Flaherty; New Times illustration

The Teachers Won

Eight hundred thousand students out of school.

A sea of teachers in red at the Capitol.

A high-drama midnight debate on the education budget, with educators packing the gallery.

Arizona’s weeklong teacher walkout was historic by any measure. Now, the dust has settled. Teachers are back in class for the remainder of the school year, and politicos have started to move on. But there’s still a lingering question: Was the strike worth it?

Ask the people spearheading the fight on either side of the trenches, and you’ll get unsurprising responses. Teachers with the lead grassroots #RedForEd organization, Arizona Educators United, have described the walkout as a win for their side.

Last Tuesday night, their voices hoarse from multiple days of rallies at the Capitol, teachers held a press conference to call an end to the strike.

"The war is not over, but we've won an important battle here to move the Legislature this far," said AEU leader Noah Karvelis.

Teachers are no longer martyrs for their jobs, #RedForEd leaders argued, and because of the walkout teachers realized their power. But strike opponents have repeatedly cast the labor action as a pointless political gambit that hurt parents and students.

So, who’s right?

Education experts say that Arizona teachers wrangled a significant victory — especially when you examine the unequal ground on which teachers were fighting.

Dennis Hoffman, the director of the L. William Seidman Research Institute at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said that support of education in Arizona has waned because the state has cut taxes “relentlessly."

“It’s increasingly tough to pay the bills,” Hoffman said. “That puts pressure on the system, and I think the pressure boiled over this spring and helped put a catalyst on the movement of #RedForEd.”

As the head of the Seidman Institute, Hoffman’s team performs an annual revenue forecast for the governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting. Although he emphasized that he’s not privy to the machinations of Ducey’s staff, Hoffman said that #RedForEd produced a clear result.

“The effort on the part of the education movement resonated with both the governor and with the Legislature, and that brought us, I think, to where we are today,” Hoffman said on the day the strike ended. “We’ll just have to see whether or not this momentum continues.”

Hoffman favors a return to the higher tax rates that preceded Arizona’s 2006 tax cuts to fund educational investments.

When viewed through the lens of tax cuts and stalled funding, combined with the West Virginia teachers who lit a tinderbox, the Arizona strike may have been inevitable. For what it’s worth, a favorite song in the repertoire of the marching band that played day after day at the Capitol was Twisted Sister's “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Although their strike fell short of an ambitious set of five demands, #RedForEd forced reluctant lawmakers, including the governor, to take immediate action on teachers raises. They also managed to mobilize thousands of mostly apolitical educators, with implications for future battles, including a ballot measure that could raise taxes to fund more education spending.

There’s no denying that teachers didn’t get everything they wanted. But a 20 percent raise worth $644 million is nothing to scoff at, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

“In a sense, the teachers won a lot,” Ingersoll said. “That’s a big increase in salary, particularly across the board.”

From Ingersoll’s perspective, the nationwide labor actions over teacher pay are taking place in the context of increased burden on educators. Teachers have been stretched by greater accountability requirements ever since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, he said, agreeing that teacher pay has not kept pace with the increased demands in Arizona and other states.

Ingersoll said that a strike is usually a last resort.

“You could view it as a necessary evil,” he said.

The dramatic strategy to walk out of schools statewide showed teachers had reached a breaking point: 78 percent of educators said that they would support a strike in an AEU vote. There was a slow escalation of actions: wearing red on Wednesdays, hashtags, and morning "walk-ins" designed not to disrupt the school day. The protests electrified the conversation about teacher pay and forced the governor to offer teachers a net 20 percent raise, a concession he had resisted before.

“In real dollars, one could call that a victory,” Ingersoll said.

When evaluating the strike, it’s important to note that Arizona teachers were directly inspired by the teacher walkouts in West Virginia and Oklahoma, both states where teachers won raises from reluctant lawmakers. Although West Virginia has a gritty history of labor activism due to strikes that took place in the mining industry, teacher unions are relatively weak in all three states.

“It seemed to come out of nowhere, and what’s interesting is there seems to be clear momentum from state to state,” said Jon Shelton, an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the 2017 book, Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.

“I think what Arizona teachers saw in West Virginia and especially in Oklahoma is that these strikes won,” Shelton said. “They were able to get substantial salary increases.”

In retrospect, the strikes in Arizona and Oklahoma ran their course in similar ways. West Virginia’s strike ended with a dramatic deal in the Legislature. But in Oklahoma, lawmakers announced teacher raises of about $6,000 before teachers there went on strike, and increased taxes to fund the plan. Oklahoma teachers went on strike for nine days anyway. Union leaders called off the effort when they realized that they had achieved all they could.

Arizona teachers used a similar rationale. They declared that they would return to the classrooms if the State Legislature passed an education budget by last Thursday. That provoked shock and anger from some #RedForEd teachers who felt that AEU leaders had thrown in the towel and were caving to a budget that had already been deemed unacceptable.

Shelton, however, said that the Arizona teachers should be proud of the new funding that they wrestled from Arizona’s governor and Legislature. “I can understand the disappointment from their perspective,” he said. “But I do think they should be claiming this as a victory.”

Moreover, extending the strike for much longer could’ve given their opponents ammunition to damage the #RedForEd cause, fomenting a backlash to their effort, he said. “They might have had to hold out for quite some time, and it’s possible that a significant amount of teachers might’ve started going back into the classrooms,” Shelton said.

As the #RedForEd demands and actions grew more intense between late March and early April, the governor's office changed course. Days before he announced his pay raise plan, Ducey was calling the protests “political theater,” ignoring the #RedForEd leaders, and stubbornly refusing to offer teachers anything beyond the 1 percent raise built into his budget.

Then, on April 12, flanked by legislators and education leaders — but not the #RedForEd leaders or teacher’s union — a grinning Ducey announced the pay package. The change in political messaging was stunning.

The revenue sources for Ducey’s proposal had to be tweaked slightly before Senate and House leaders reached a deal, but the broad strokes remained the same: $644 million in funding meant for superintendents to spend on teacher salaries would go to school districts by the 2020 school year, ideally adding up to a 20 percent pay bump.

#RedforEd leaders were unimpressed, and dug in for more actions.

“The governor’s promises have not been honored on other things in education,” said David Berliner, a professor emeritus at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “So I think the teachers had to say to the governor, ‘Thank you very much, but until we get this through the Legislature, we have to keep this up.’”

One week after Ducey’s announcement of the 20x2020 plan, teachers said that they had voted overwhelmingly to go on strike. A week after that, more than 50,000 teachers marched on the Capitol. And one week after that, with the strike in full swing, the Legislature passed the budget with the teacher raises intact.

In retrospect, teachers were lucky they were able to stay on strike for a week given the bitter attacks against the #RedForEd teachers — a smear campaign that could have easily derailed their efforts.

Conservative lawmakers and other allies of the governor deployed red-baiting attacks on Karvelis and other #RedForEd leaders, calling them socialists and Democratic partisans. #RedForEd opponents latched onto the idea that teachers were selfishly abandoning students to protest, and argued that Ducey had already agreed to give teachers a raise.

Before the strike, opponents hammered on the point that teachers were on a partisan mission. Matthew Benson, a conservative with consulting firm Veridus, has argued that the strike was a foregone conclusion.

“Keep in mind that this whole issue was billed as a teacher crisis,” he said in an interview after teachers voted to strike last month.

Benson, it should be noted, is also the spokesperson for the Arizona Education Project, a nonprofit backed by business groups that has run ads touting Arizona’s educational improvements.

Weeks before the strike, at the huge rally at the Capitol the educators held in late March, leaders laid out five demands — with a 20 percent raise listed first and foremost. #RedForEd teachers also demanded raises for support staff, no new tax cuts until per-pupil spending hits the national average, a plan for experience-based pay increases, and a restoration of $1 billion in lost school funding.

“And then after, the governor came out and said, ‘You’re right. You want 20 percent pay raises? Here you go. I’ll step it in over four years,’" Benson said. "And then we started hearing, it’s not just about the teachers, it’s about the support staff and the crossing guards and the bus drivers.”

“That’s a very different thing,” Benson added. “We were never told we had a custodian crisis in Arizona.”

In fact, teachers repeatedly raised the issue of school funding because of how underfunded schools depress the wages of counselors, custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.

In the midst of the strike, the libertarians at the Goldwater Institute went on the offensive against school districts. The Phoenix-based policy center sent letters threatening legal action to superintendents who closed schools during the walkout.

Creative #RedForEd opponents even adopted a competing hashtag: #PurpleForParents, a colorful way of telling teachers to get back in the classroom.

But there was too much at stake for teachers to declare victory immediately after Ducey launched the pay raises. AEU leaders had been consistently threatening to strike if their demands weren’t met before Ducey’s pay proposal, and if they had called off their action, many #RedForEd supporters would have accused them caving way too soon. After all, some supporters said they had ended the strike too soon after four days.

Sometimes it was evident that the relatively young #RedForEd leaders — Karvelis is 23 — were winging it. There was no clear endgame to the strike when it began, outside of the Republican-held Legislature bending to all five of their demands, which was never going to happen.

And yet, the teachers managed to beat back some of the austerity measures that have strangled Arizona’s education funding ever since the recession.

Berliner, the professor emeritus at ASU's teaching school, was absolute: “The strike was necessary,” he said, noting that the governor’s office doesn't have the power to set the budget unilaterally.

“The neglect was too long, and everyone knew it, and nobody in the Legislature would do anything about it,” Berliner explained. “The governor wouldn’t do anything about it, until the teachers essentially said, ‘Fuck you,’ and they walked out.”

Echoing a point that teachers often made after Ducey offered the raises, Berliner said that the fight was not just about teacher pay. Teachers should also be wary of another economic downturn that could jeopardize the funding, which is predicated on expected growth of Arizona’s economy.

With this in mind, the teachers can’t claim an unequivocal victory, Berliner said. “But the fact is, they got the raise,” he said.

The strike was an effective show of force “to show how much support there is for raising revenue for schools and for other investments," said Erica Williams, the director of State Policy Initiatives at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

Research from the CBPP has shown that states failed to reinvest in education after the recession: Arizona saw the single largest drop in combined state and local funding for schools between 2008 and 2015. Simultaneously, Arizona continued to cut taxes. Arizona passed a 10 percent personal income tax cut in 2006 and slashed the corporate rate by 30 percent in 2011.

“Those are tax cuts that are largely skewed to the top, and are coming at the expense of other kinds of investments that Arizonans want or need ... including high-quality or even decent-quality public schools," she said.

Complicating the school revenue crisis in Arizona is that tax increases have to be approved by a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Legislature. Also, Ducey has promised to not raise taxes during his term as governor. These are two reasons why some educators have pivoted to a ballot measure sponsored by the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, which would raise taxes on the wealthiest to bankroll teacher raises.

Getting voters to approve the measure in November might be an easier hurdle than shepherding a tax increase through the Republican-held Legislature with a two-thirds majority. But to get on the ballot, they have to collect 150,642 signatures by July 5.

If the public takes away one thing from the teacher upheaval in Arizona and elsewhere, Williams argued, it’s that an agenda of tax cuts is shortchanging schools, with not much to show for it.

“K-12 education is one of the most important things that states support,” Williams said. “And so it should be on every lawmaker’s radar at all times, every year.”

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