#RedForEd: Arizona Teachers Vote for a Walkout; Strike Begins Thursday

Joseph Flaherty
Teachers announce their intention to walk out of Arizona schools next week.
Arizona teachers in the #RedForEd movement voted overwhelmingly Thursday night to walk out of their schools to protest the state’s poor education funding. The strike will begin on Thursday, April 26.

The vote lit the fuse for a statewide walkout to demand that the governor and Republican-held Legislature increase teacher pay and school funding.

Seventy-eight percent of 57,000 teachers voted in favor of the walkout.

Next week, the teachers will do walk-ins at their school sites from Monday to Wednesday, and then will walk out Thursday, leaders said.

"This is undeniably and clearly a mandate for action," said Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association.

Leaders of the movement called it a first-of-a-kind vote in a right-to-work state. "I think we all sensed that something big was happening here tonight," said Noah Karvelis, a West Valley music teacher who has spearheaded the #RedForEd movement in Arizona.

It was Karvelis who, thanks to a Twitter conversation with Thomas in late February, alighted on the idea of educators wearing red shirts to protest Arizona's dismal school funding. This led to a rally at the Capitol where teachers announced their demands, and finally culminated in Thursday night's stunning vote.

Although the #RedForEd movement has been gearing up since that initial Twitter thread, the announcement of a vote in favor of a walkout is a huge step toward following the lead of West Virginia and Oklahoma, other Republican-dominated states that have staged teacher strikes.

Speaking to reporters and television cameras on Thursday night, Karvelis made the forceful case for action even though the strike is only one week away. The status quo of Arizona's bottom-tier education funding has to end, Karvelis said.

"The worst possible thing we can do is not take action right now,” he said.

Organizers with AEU have been teasing the possibility of a statewide walkout for weeks. Teachers are asking for a 20 percent raise by next year, raises for school support staff, and per-pupil funding on par with the national average. Arizona teachers earn a median annual wage that is nearly the lowest in the nation. Elementary teachers earn $44,990 and high school teachers earn $48,306, according to the Morrison Institute at ASU, ranking 49th and 48th respectively nationwide.

AEU campus liaisons and local education associations tallied up the paper ballots, verified the results, and then relayed the vote count to the teacher's union headquarters via a phone hotline.

In an interview before the strike announcement, Thomas was careful to point out he wasn't speaking for the AEU leadership team. But he floated the idea that in the event of a vote in favor of a walkout, tonight the public would learn in broad strokes about a schedule of escalating actions.

"Walk-ins" that show solidarity with #RedForEd but which don't disrupt classes might be held at school sites every day next week, Thomas suggested, or AEU leaders could issue an ultimatum to the governor and the Legislature that sets a deadline for them to pass a bill to avoid a walkout.

"It could be 'walk-ins' every day, and then by Wednesday of the week after, there’s going to be a walkout," Thomas suggested. "And what will stop that walkout is that the governor and the Legislature do, 'X.'"

Thomas also made the distinction between a vote explicitly calling for a walkout, and a vote that empowers the AEU leadership to make the decision on behalf of Arizona teachers.

"I don’t want to say that the members are voting on whether or not we will have a walkout," Thomas said. "I think what they’re voting on is whether AEA and AEU can collectively call for a walkout ... As a union, you have to poll your members if you’re going to put that much skin in the game."

On Tuesday, Rebecca Garelli, one of the AEU teacher leaders, told educators in a video on the organization’s massive Facebook page, “A vote to walk out means you are supporting our ability to strategically make the best decisions that are effective to achieve our goals around the demands.”

A strong vote for a walkout, Garelli said, “provides choice to leverage the Legislature.”

AEU and other education organizations that support the #RedForEd movement rebuffed Governor Doug Ducey's April 12 offer to increase teacher pay by a cumulative 20 percent over the next two years. Although Ducey's plan was well-received at first, funding details emerged that showed the raises were cobbled together from overly optimistic projections of state revenue and repurposed dollars from other areas of the budget, as opposed to a new source of revenue dedicated to teacher pay.

Two organizations that initially praised Ducey's initiative and attended his announcement pulled their support on Wednesday: Save Our Schools Arizona, which is fighting a Republican-backed voucher law, and the Arizona Parent Teacher Association.

Arizona PTA President Beth Simek went from arguing in favor of Ducey's plan in a Capitol news conference on Monday to criticizing Ducey's so-called "20x2020" proposal in a statement on Wednesday.

“As a voice for Arizona’s children we hope to see our Governor and this legislature find a sustainable, permanent funding source that does not hurt others in the process," Simek said in the statement.

Over two dozen Arizona school boards have passed resolutions in support of the #RedForEd movement, and school districts are gingerly addressing the possibility of a walkout. The Tucson Unified School District shared an FAQ letter earlier today, telling families that school closures will be determined on a case-by-case basis if there are enough staff.

On Monday, the superintendent of Mesa Public Schools emailed teachers to caution them against a walkout. But others have more openly criticized the #RedForEd drive. Yesterday, Arizona Republican operatives began to cast doubt on whether the walkout vote was legitimate in response to the news that AEU had reserved the Capitol grounds next week.

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines wrote on Twitter, "You are already putting plans in place for a strike? I was under the impression that a 'vote' was currently taking place. Seems like a rigged process to me."

Thomas dismissed the allegations. If the vote was a foregone conclusion in favor of a walkout, you wouldn't see the heated discussion happening among AEU members, he said, some of whom are concerned about the impact of a walkout on their students. Voting to close down campuses in order to win better school funding can be a sobering exercise, he said.

"When someone hands you a sheet of paper and reminds you of the risk you’re taking, you’ve got to be thoughtful," Thomas said. "Am I in this for my students and my colleagues?"

Now that teachers have committed to a strike, the key decisions to watch will be made at the Legislature. Lawmakers have been extremely reluctant to increase teacher pay and school funding to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars that were never replaced after recession-era education cuts, and Governor Ducey has pledged that he will not raise taxes.

But for teachers like Marisol Garcia, the vice president of the AEA, these budgetary choices have left educators in an impossible position. “This is a devotion that has left us living paycheck to paycheck,” Garcia said at the strike announcement.

Garcia said, "Today when I voted, I voted for my students, I voted for my son, I voted for the future of Arizona, and the policies that will guide us into the future."