Janresseger: Arizona Teachers Will Walk Out Tomorrow for Salaries and Adequate School Funding

Last Thursday, Arizona’s teachers voted to walk out tomorrow, April 26, unless Governor Doug Ducey can show there is a way to pay for his recent promise to raise teachers’ salaries in one of the nation’s lowest paying states. For the Washington PostValerie Strauss reports: “Ducey said he would give teachers a 20 percent pay hike by 2020. But Arizona teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, say the governor has not identified how he would pay for it, and they say their schools are starving for funds after massive budget cuts since the Great Recession. According to the nonprofit group Arizona Schools Now, the Arizona legislature cut $1.5 billion in school funding while a 2016 voter-approved initiative has restored only 18 percent.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Arizona is among 7 of the 12 states with deep cuts in education spending that have also cut personal or corporate income taxes since 2008.  Arizona has cut income taxes by 13.6 percent over the decade.

The NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein adds: “The state has cut approximately $1 billion from schools since the 2008 recession, while also cutting taxes. It spent under $7,500 per pupil annually in 2015, the last year for which census data was available; only Utah and Idaho spent less.”

Goldstein describes the details of weeks of protests and negotiations that have led Governor Ducey to promise a salary increase. She also explains why teachers are skeptical that Ducey will be able to raise salaries without a tax increase, as he has promised—when there is no obvious ready source of revenue: “The vote in Arizona followed weeks of protest across the state and promises from the governor to raise salaries. The Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United (AEU), a group of teachers who organized independently on Facebook, said that 78 percent of the teachers and school workers who cast ballots supported a walkout.  The groups said the walkout would take place on April 26 if  legislators and the governor did not meet their demands, not only for a raise for teachers but also one for school support staff.  They also called for an end to tax cuts until Arizona’s per-pupil spending reaches the national average… Arizona has never before had a statewide teacher walkout, and has experienced only a handful of districtwide strikes over the past four decades.”

Goldstein briefly profiles several young teachers in their twenties and thirties who are making less than $40,000 per year: “In San Tan Valley, an exurban area an hour southeast of Phoenix, Mary Stavely… 34, earns $36,800. Thirteen of 38 teachers at her school, Circle Cross Ranch K-8 are planning to resign at the end of this academic year, she said, because of factors like low pay and a lack of rental housing in the area. ‘It directly affects students’ when teacher turnover is high, Ms. Stavely said, because children ‘lose morale and the connections that were made’ with caring adults. Ms. Stavely, a single mother, is currently living with her parents….”

The Arizona Republic’Ricardo Cano reports about what many teachers regard as problems with Governor Ducey’s promised raise: “Organizers with AEU and the Arizona Education Association criticized Ducey’s plan, saying it left out support professionals, lacked funding details and didn’t address schools’ broader funding needs for things like reducing the number of students in each classroom, updating textbooks and purchasing new technology.”

The best explanation I’ve read about the meaning of this month’s walkouts by school teachers is the school finance primer published in yesterday’s NY Times from Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman: “At the state and local levels, the conservative obsession with tax cuts has forced the G.O.P. into what amounts to a war on education, and in particular a war on schoolteachers… The federal government… is basically an insurance company with an army: nondefense spending is dominated by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. State and local governments, however, are basically school districts with police departments. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force; protective services like police and fire departments account for the rest. So what happens when hard-line conservatives take over a state, as they did in much of the country after the 2010 Tea Party wave?  They almost invariably push through big tax cuts. Usually these tax cuts are sold with the promise that lower taxes will provide a huge boost to the state economy. This promise is, however, never—and I mean never—fulfilled….  What tax cuts do, instead, is sharply reduce revenue…. And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs… At the national level, earnings of public-school teachers have fallen behind inflation since the mid-1990s, and have fallen even more behind the earnings of comparable workers.  At this point, teachers earn 23 percent less than other college graduates…. Meanwhile teachers’ benefits are also getting worse. In particular, teachers are having to pay a rising share of their health insurance premiums, a severe burden when their real earnings are declining at the same time.”

Here are two additional important commentaries on the meaning of this month’s teachers’ walkouts.

Writing for the American ProspectHarold Meyerson views the walkouts by school teachers across all-Red states as a rejection of the anti-tax dogma that swept the country in the 2010 Tea Party wave: “The remarkable upsurge of teachers in Republican-run, largely non-union states that has swept through West Virginia and is now sweeping through Oklahoma and Kentucky, and is poised to descend on Arizona, has returned the mass strike to the United States after decades of relegation to the history books. In each of these states, the teachers unions have something between limited and no legal rights to bargain collectively, and correspondingly, represent just a hard core of members whose commitment to their union is more a matter of belief than of anticipated reward. And yet, able to mobilize even in non-union terrains through the use of social media, and outraged by their states’ continued opposition to funding public education, the teachers have leapt beyond law and formal organization to press their case… Indeed, what the Republican governors and legislators of Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona are now discovering is that, contra the GOP’s Grover Norquist nostrums, their constituents actually don’t want a government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub.”

Finally, what does tomorrow’s walkout in Arizona say about overall education policy?  Not only has Arizona under-funded its public schools, but the state has been a leader in the push for school privatization.  The state has a large charter school sector and an education savings account-voucher program that Governor Ducey expanded last year to make all 1.1 million public school students in the state eligible, though an initial cap was set at 30,000. A grassroots coalition, Save Our Schools Arizona has garnered enough signatures for Proposition 305, a November referendum to stop the growth of the education savings account program, an expansion which would only further bankrupt the public school budget. A UCLA academic who has tracked public policy in education, Pedro Noguera believes this spring’s wave of community-supported walkouts by teachers as a sign that the public is turning away from accountability-based corporate school reform and education privatization:

“In many respects, the strikes are the culmination of a long-simmering response to the numerous attacks that have been directed at teachers and public education generally, under the guise of ‘reform.’ In several cities and states, Republicans, and in some cases Democrats, have promoted a package of measures—expansion of charter schools, vouchers, state takeover of school districts (primarily those that serve poor children of color)—that have undermined and weakened public education. The impact of these measures has been particularly devastating in cities where the reformers have sought to privatize and dismantle school systems they claimed were ‘failing.’ However, despite the vast amount of private-foundation and hedge-fund money behind them, these reformers are losing steam… It’s become clear that the fight over the future of public education is a major front in the fight over the future of American democracy.  The teachers’ strikes and the public support they’ve generated are a resounding affirmation that those who see a strong public education as critical to America’s future are not giving up.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...