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At Electrifying Rally, Arizona Teachers Demand Better Pay, Threaten Strike

Arizona-teacher-protest-shout-600.jpg

Phoenix

In the shadows of the State Capitol, thousands of Arizona teachers decked in red demanded Wednesday that their state government pump $1 billion back into the public school system and provide school workers with a 20 percent pay increase. If their demands aren't met, their leaders said, they'll stage a statewide strike.

"We're fed up with the funding cuts and the unreasonable expectations," Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's teachers union, shouted out over cheers, whistles, and clanging cow bells. "West Virginia woke us up," he said of the recent statewide walkout there. "We're taking this into our own hands now."

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has in recent weeks scrambled to quell the increasingly raucous, teacher-led movement dubbed "Arizona Educators United." He and the state's Republican-run legislature earlier this week extended an 18-year-old sales tax that's poured tens of millions of dollars into the state's public schools, and the legislature is currently pushing through a budget that provides for an incremental increase in school funding.

But Ducey has not managed to boost teacher pay, an expensive task that likely will require new taxes in this conservative state. (A 1 percent pay increase would cost the state an estimated $34 million.)  Arizona requires the approval of at least two-thirds of its legislature in order to pass a new tax. 

Ducey has promised to stick to his campaign promise to not raise taxes, and said through his spokesman after Wednesday's rally that several of the state's local school boards have already increased their teachers' salaries.

"His goal [is to] pass a budget in the next few weeks that continues to increase our investment in public education, but we won't stop there," Ducey's spokesman Patrick Ptak said. "He meets with teachers regularly and wants to continue a dialogue about increasing our investment in Arizona schools and teachers." The state legislature wraps up business in mid-April.

Arizona teachers claim that their average pay is among the lowest in the nation, and that a decade of public school cuts amid increased performance demands have made working conditions unbeareable. Simultaneously, the state's legislature has led one of the most ambitious school choice experiments in the nation, dramatically expanding charter schools and access to school vouchers. 

The two-week teacher strike in West Virginia and the threatened strike in Oklahoma—both of which now have led to teacher pay increases—have inspired Arizona's teachers, who are on average annually paid $48,000.

Arizona's teachers have rallied tens of thousands of parents and other citizens through social media, protested at Ducey's press conferences, and staged other actions throughout the state.

A week ago, 350 teachers in West Valley called in sick in protest of their pay, forcing the district to shutter nine of its 12 schools for the day.

At Wednesday's rally in Phoenix, a crush of teachers carrying flamboyant signs that detailed their pay and working conditions snaked across the capitol grounds chanting their demands. They signed petitions and volunteered to organize this fall in the 2018 midterm election. Much of their ire seemed targeted at Ducey, who is up for re-election this fall.

There was a highly political tone to the day's events. Several Democratic candidates for state schools chief, governor, and legislature circulated in the crowd. They included David Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University, who is a leading Democratic hopeful for governor.

Many of the teachers slapped on top of their bright red shirts stickers that reminded the many local TV cameras that a strike is possible. 

For a movement that's largely taken place on Facebook and Twitter, Wednesday also served as a sort of family reunion where teachers working in far-flung districts met each other in person for the first time. 

In between the capitol ground's cacti and swaying palm trees, teachers commiserated over their low pay, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and the state government's recent antics. 

"Some of my former students in their first full-time job are making twice as much as I do," said Donald Sheldon, a computer coding teacher at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix who has a Ph.D, left the corporate world in 2005 to start teaching, and now makes $45,000 a year. A recent fender-bender forced him to take out a $250 loan. "If I didn't have a passion for what I do, I wouldn't be doing it, especially for this kind of pay."

Leaders of the movement said at the end of the rally Wednesday that a statewide strike was a "last resort." In addition to the 20 percent pay increase, they also demanded that the state institute annual ladder pay increases for all teachers and prohibit tax cuts until the state's $7,500 average per pupil spending matches the nation's $11,400 average per pupil spending.

"The last thing we want to do is go on strike," said Dylan Wegela, a teacher who has turned into a social media icon of Arizona's movement. "But if we have to, we will."

Photo: Teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol, protesting low teacher pay and school funding on March 28 in Phoenix. — Ross D. Franklin/AP


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