Arizona Educators Want to Be Paid Like Teachers in Neighboring States

Joseph Flaherty
Arizona teachers rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday to demand a 20 percent pay raise.
Arizona educators with the grassroots #RedForEd movement announced an ambitious set of demands at the Capitol, including a 20 percent salary increase on base pay.

The salary hike is designed to make Arizona teacher wages comparable to neighboring states like New Mexico and Colorado, according to leaders of the grassroots movement known as Arizona Educators United.

“Are you guys ready to demand that? We’re going to demand that all teachers in Arizona are given a 20 percent pay increase,” AEU leader Noah Karvelis told a huge crowd of teachers decked out in red. “That’s what we need to compete. That’s what we need to fight for.”

Additionally, teachers want a permanent salary schedule to compensate them for advanced degrees and experience, and restored education funding to match pre-recession levels from 2008. AEU asked that state lawmakers enact no new tax cuts until they increase per-pupil education funding to meet the national average.

Organizers told the fired-up crowd of thousands that if nothing is done before the legislative session closes, they’ll escalate their actions until the demands are met.

“We will do everything in our power to avoid a strike,” AEU organizer Dylan Wegela told the crowd. “This is because as educators, we know we are willing to put kids first even when the state won’t.

“Governor Ducey, Legislature — the last thing that any of us want to do is go on strike, but if we have to, we will.” Wegela added. The crowd went crazy, chanting, “Red for Ed!"

It's the culmination of a slow-burn #RedForEd movement that has taken over Arizona schools ever since West Virginia teachers successfully went on strike for a pay raise earlier this month.

Teachers in red flooded the Capitol this afternoon in a rally that was co-sponsored by Save Our Schools Arizona and the Arizona PTA. A "teach-in," where educators described the dismal state of Arizona's school funding and teacher pay, segued to the announcement from the #RedForEd leaders, who outlined their demands on behalf of AEU.

Speakers included Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas as well as representatives of SOS and the PTA.

The goals are based on weeks of discussion in the organization's Facebook group, according to Karvelis, a music teacher at Tres Rios Service Academy.

click to enlarge Arizona Educators United leaders Noah Karvelis, left, and Dylan Wegela. - JOSEPH FLAHERTY
Arizona Educators United leaders Noah Karvelis, left, and Dylan Wegela.
Joseph Flaherty
In an interview last week, Karvelis said that teacher pay is of huge importance to Arizona educators. Arizona's median teacher pay is pretty much dead last when you account for cost of living, according to the Morrison Institute at ASU.

As a result, the polls and comments from teachers informed the leadership team's demands.

"There are a couple different polls that said, ‘What are you fighting for? What’s important to you?’ So we’ve taken that information, gotten our leadership team, and put our heads together," Karvelis said.

In a poll on March 12, AEU leader Derek Harris asked the group members to vote in a poll on their base pay. Although not everyone is the group is a full-time Arizona teacher — there are over 38,000 members — people voted in the poll to give a rough sketch of common salaries in Arizona. The most common response was $38,000-$40,000 in annual base pay, with over 1,114 votes.

Karvelis said that they intend to give time for the Legislature to respond to their demands. But the crowd was clearly ready for more action.

Arizona's school funding has never fully recovered from devastating cuts to education that took place following the 2008 recession. Teachers say that the governor's office and the Legislature have let education funding languish for years as inflation and other costs outpaced their salaries.

On Monday, Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a 20-year extension of Proposition 301, a sales tax that provides funding for schools. The tax was approved in a 2000 initiative, but the revenue source was scheduled to expire in 2021.

click to enlarge Teachers in Arizona have the lowest median annual wage in the nation, according to the Morrison Institute. - JOSEPH FLAHERTY
Teachers in Arizona have the lowest median annual wage in the nation, according to the Morrison Institute.
Joseph Flaherty
The governor and his allies immediately trumpeted the bipartisan bill as a victory for teachers and a sign of Ducey's commitment to increasing education funding. "Today, elected leaders have worked together, in a bipartisan fashion, to keep this funding stream alive for our schools, teachers and students,” Ducey said in a statement on Monday.

The response from teachers and the Arizona Education Association, however, was much more muted. They called the Prop. 301 extension merely an extension of the unsustainable status quo.

Prop. 301 provides $667 million a year for Arizona schools. But prolonging an existing source of school funding does nothing to restore the education dollars that have vanished.

From 2008 to 2015, Arizona enacted the deepest cuts to per-pupil education funding, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Pattee Folkman, a kindergarten teacher at Diamond Canyon Elementary School in Anthem, was at the rally with her husband. She said that if legislators don’t listen, she’s willing to go on strike.

“We need to be taken seriously, and I think they rely on us caring so much about our kids that they’re not going to worry about it,” she said. “They’re not going to give in to what we want.”

Curtis Folkman, a high school marketing teacher at Moon Valley High School in Phoenix, said that educators in Arizona have been squeezed by increasing demands every year, with fewer resources at their disposal. “It’s the old adage that you deal with in life on a regular basis — that you want more from less,” he said.

He added, “It’s going to hit a boiling point where you’re not going to get more any more. I think we’re here.”

The full list of teacher demands from Arizona Educators United:
  • "20 percent salary increase for teachers in order to create competitive pay with neighboring states."
  • "Competitive pay for all Education Support Professionals."
  • "Permanent teacher salary structure which includes annual raises."
  • "Restore education funding to 2008 levels."
  • "No new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.”