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'We Are Moving the Needle': Arizona Teachers See Some Progress on Demands

Arizona-Teacxher-strike-buses-600.jpg

Updated

On the fourth day of the Arizona statewide teacher strike, legislators began hearings on a state budget proposal that would boost teacher pay raises 20 percent by 2020 and invest $371 million in schools by 2023. 

Gov. Doug Ducey said in an open letter about the budget proposal that he is optimistic he will sign the budget bills as early as Wednesday, the fifth day of the strike.

Teachers were sparse and spread out on the capitol grounds on Tuesday afternoon. The strike's organizers hadn't planned any rallies or programming for the day—unlike Monday, when thousands filled the grounds to hear speeches. Still, according to local reports, nearly 200 teachers and supporters of education filled the state senate's gallery as legislators debated the proposal, which will be paid for without tax hikes.

IMG_1881.jpgBetty Biswell, who teaches 9th and 10th grade at Vail Academy High School in Vail, said she and a few of her fellow teachers have been in Phoenix for a few days. Democratic lawmakers have urged teachers to be present during the legislative debates, she said. 

"They said, 'we need to see your support,' so it's important for us to be in there where the conversation is happening," she said. "We want to make sure we're here, present, listening. We want to make sure they do what they say they're going to do."

Mary Spangenberg, who teaches 1st grade at G. Frank Davidson Elementary School in Phoenix, said she was standing in line to get into the house gallery "to make sure our schools are appropriately funded."

In his open letter, Ducey said the state's revenues are increasing, and the plan "directs this revenue to our biggest budget priority: public education, and it does it in a way that is responsible, sustainable, and solidifies our commitment for years to come."

According to the Arizona Republic, dozens of small changes—from vehicle-registration fees as high as $24 to state savings from buying prescription drugs in bulk—will fund the pay raises. 

"We've been saying all along that we want more money for the teachers," said Patricia Welborn, a member of the Arizona state board of education. "It's all a matter of how we get there."

Still, it's unclear if this will be enough for teachers. Their initial demand was $1 billion in education funding, which would include a 20 percent pay raise this fall. According to the Arizona Republic, the proposal would provide extra funding for districts, but would not require districts to spend that money on teacher pay raises. Also, a few districts that have higher-than-average teacher salaries would not receive enough money to give all of their teachers 20 percent raises. 

In a statement, Ralph Quintana, the president of the Arizona chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the proposal "comes up short." 

"The budget package does not include a way to finance fixing crumbling schools, purchasing textbooks and curriculums, lowering class sizes, and hiring more teachers to alleviate the teacher shortage," he said. "This package is a disgrace." 

In a phone interview on Monday evening, before the details of the plan were released, Noah Karvelis, the grassroots organizer and the creator of the Facebook group Arizona Educators United, said he was glad to see the governor respond to some of the teachers' demands. 

"We are moving the needle," he said. "Right now, I don't think it's going to be enough. We're going to continue to fight." 

However, some teachers aren't sure how much longer they'll want to remain out of the classroom.

Nick Steinkemper, a geometry teacher at Desert Ridge High School in Mesa, said he doesn't have faith that Ducey and the legislature will enact long-term change for public education. 

Still, "I think we'll end up taking the [pay raise] deal even if we don't want to," he said.

"We want to be back in our classrooms," added Colleen Rumer, who teaches anatomy at Desert Ridge and was sitting in a folding chair with Steinkemper and another colleague, Kenneth Kim, under a blue shade canopy on the capitol grounds.

Under another shade canopy nearby, Nichole Soyka, who teaches 8th grade reading at Sunset Ridge Elementary School in Glendale, said teachers in her school want to stay on strike until Ducey signs the budget. 

That would be fine with her colleague Jason Weis, a physical education teacher. "I'm not a fan of being here," he said. "We all miss our kids."

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how long teachers will retain public support. Madeline Riggs, 14 and an 8th grader from Stapley Junior High School in Mesa, was on a late-afternoon flight from Burbank, Calif., on Monday. She was returning home to Phoenix from a whirlwind day trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. Her mom took her and her siblings there because the teacher strike had closed their schools. (Her mom, an American Airlines employee, had "miles" to spare.)

"If the teachers walk out on us, we can walk out on them," Madeline said with a laugh. "I do think they deserve a raise, but they want a lot in a short period of time." 

Education Week Senior Contributing Writer Catherine Gewertz reported from Phoenix

See also: 

Image 1: School buses sit idle at a main terminal as the statewide Arizona teachers strike enters a 4th day on May 1 in Phoenix. —Ross D. Franklin/AP

Image 2: Josie De Alejandro, a 9th grade science teacher at Carl Hayden High in Phoenix, holds a sign at the capitol on May 1. —Catherine Gewertz/Education Week

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