Arizona teachers plan protest Wednesday over low pay
Arizona is in the midst of a teacher shortage. Many schools and students are grappling with the consequences. What’s behind the shortage? Republic reporter Ricardo Cano explains in this episode of azcentral Rewind.
Thousands of Arizona public-school teachers and their supporters are expected to wear red to work Wednesday in protest of the low pay they say has exacerbated the state’s critical shortage of qualified teachers.
The effort to stage a statewide teacher protest started last week and has since gained rapid momentum on social media among teachers, said Noah Karvelis, one of the protest organizers and a music teacher in the Littleton Elementary School District.
Karvelis created a closed Facebook group over the weekend called Arizona Teachers United to mobilize teachers’ support for the protest. The group had more than 11,000 members as of Tuesday evening.
Karvelis said Arizona teachers have been galvanized by the efforts of the West Virginia teachers who started a nine-day strike across all 55 of the state’s school districts. The strike led to an agreement by that state’s Legislature to boost pay by 5 percent.
Arizona and West Virginia are similar: They both rank among the worst for teacher pay. When adjusted for cost of living, median pay for elementary teachers in Arizona ranks 50th nationally at $42,474, according to the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy. The report puts high-school teacher median pay at 49th nationally.
“They really set a strong example of what’s possible, even with a Republican governor, even with Right to Work being the law of the land essentially as it is here,” Karvelis said of West Virginia’s teachers. “That really emboldened us.”
Arizona teacher pay remains among the lowest in the nation despite a 1 percent increase approved by the Legislature last year, as well as an infusion of cash from a ballot measure called Proposition 123.
The 2016 measure, pushed by Gov. Doug Ducey, settled a lawsuit filed by the school districts over the Legislature not fully funding inflation during the Great Recession.
But many teachers have been unsatisfied by the state’s efforts and have said they don’t do enough to address the flood of qualified educators leaving Arizona’s classrooms.
The majority of Arizona’s schools staffed classroom teaching positions with teachers who were either underqualified or inexperienced during the 2016-17 school year, an Arizona Republic analysis found.
Dan Hunting of the Morrison Institute explains how high teacher turnover impacts Arizona schools.
As of last November, school districts had filled more than 1,000 teaching positions this school year through Emergency Teaching Certificates that require only a bachelor’s degree and no formal teacher training.
Joshua Buckley, a teacher and president of Mesa Public Schools’ teachers’ union, said he hoped Wednesday’s demonstration shows “that teachers have power.”
“We’re at a moment in Arizona where we’re starting to see all those cracks show up because of the lack of funding, whether it’s literal cracks in school buildings or classrooms that have more than 35 students,” Buckley said.
Momentum for strike?
Many teachers in Arizona are getting second or even third jobs to make ends meet. The state ranks near the bottom nationally for teacher pay. Wochit
West Virginia’s teacher strike first took shape through a similar mobilization of teachers wearing red, and teachers in another low-pay state, Oklahoma, are also organizing for possible job action.
But organizers of Arizona’s teacher protest said they do not plan to go that far yet.
Instead, they described Wednesday’s action as the “first step” toward mobilizing support among the state’s teachers.
According to the Associated Press, an Arizona attorney-general opinion from 1971 said there’s no statewide law banning a teacher strike, but nevertheless found that a statewide teacher strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.
Teachers on social media, including several who said they supported striking, worried about the impact of a strike on their already-low incomes.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, told The Arizona Republic last week that he hoped to see improvements made by state leaders before teachers reached the point of striking.
Thomas on Tuesday told the Associated Press that he’s seen increasing interest in a teacher strike. He said he suggested to Karvelis recently that a group action such as wearing red would be a good way to gauge teachers’ sentiments and the potential willingness for a statewide job action.
“It’s a great indicator — if two wear red, people probably aren’t upset — people probably aren’t agitated,” Thomas said. “But if you get your whole school site — I don’t know what the magic number is, 80 percent? If everybody shows up in red, that may be a good indicator that people are ready to take a larger action.”
State lawmakers weigh in
Patrick Ptak, spokesman for Ducey, said the governor’s focus remains on finding more money to pay teachers. Ducey and the Legislature promised last year to give teachers another 1 percent hike this year.
They are in the midst of budget negotiations.
“I think we can all agree that the best thing we can do is get more dollars to classrooms and teachers — and that’s what the governor is focused on,” Ptak said, adding that Ducey’s 2019 budget invests additional money for K-12 education.
Senate Minority Whip Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said Tuesday evening that he was looking for a “clean, red shirt” to wear in support of teachers. He said he plans to join a group expected to protest outside the state Capitol.
“We’ve chosen to send money elsewhere and cut funds rather than investing in our families and our kids,” Quezada said.
He said he’s been amazed to see the movement grow on social media over the past week, calling it “SOS on steroids,” a reference to Save Our Schools Arizona, the group challenging a school-voucher law.
“Teachers are feeling that they’re not respected right now,” Quezada said. “It’s time that our elected officials pay them the respect that they deserve.”
Another lawmaker, Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, said he can relate to the group’s frustrations as a longtime high-school teacher in the East Valley.
This session, Coleman is sponsoring a bill, House Bill 2158, that would extend the state’s education sales tax for another eight years. A portion of that money goes toward teacher salaries. Without an extension, the tax expires in mid-2021.
Coleman said he still has “hope” that it will pass, though it hasn’t come up for a vote in the House.
“I spent 31 years in the classroom and in that time was able to associate with hundreds of dedicated teachers who want what’s best for their students,” Coleman said. “And I understand much of their frustration with what seems to be the inability to get the resources to adequately do their jobs.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.