Arizona teachers group nearing walk out over low pay

Arizona teachers group nearing walk out over low pay
The Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona teachers who have organized to push for big raises and a restoration of school funding are threatening a statewide walkout, following the lead of educators across the country, including Oklahoma where schools have been closed for more than a week.

Leaders for a new grassroots group called Arizona Educators United say they could announce a date for action at any time. The group of about 40,000 members says Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature have not responded to requests for negotiations.

Teacher and organizer Noah Karvelis said the group sees no choice but to move to walkouts.

The likely walkout is part of a wave of teacher rebellions in states led by conservative leaders. In Oklahoma, classes in the state’s biggest school districts were canceled Tuesday for the seventh day. Educators have not said when their walkout will end, but classes in Oklahoma City and Tulsa have been scrubbed for Wednesday.

Leaders of Oklahoma’s largest teacher’s union want a capital gains tax exemption repealed and for the governor to veto a repeal of a proposed lodging tax as they push for more education funding. They already won pay raises of about $6,100, but many educators say their classrooms need more money.

Other states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, have seen teacher strikes or protests this year as the education community revolts against years of cuts and lower spending.

Arizona education advocates say the state is spending nearly $1 billion a year less on schools than before the Great Recession, and they want that funding restored.

The state’s teachers are among the lowest-paid in the nation. The teachers group that sprang up in March is demanding a 20 percent pay hike and annual raises, higher pay for support staff, a restoration of school funding to 2008 levels and an end to new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

The Arizona group has held #RedforEd protests at the state Capitol and statewide for weeks and plans “walk-ins” at least 1,000 schools across the state on Wednesday to highlight their efforts. Karvelis said 30,000 educators have ratified the group’s demand list and they are nearing their goal of getting enough teachers to approve a statewide walkout.

“It looks like we’re going to hit those numbers shortly here,” he said before heading to his teaching job early Tuesday. “In the meantime our governor and our Legislature have not responded to our demands, our request for meetings. So it seems like the only language they understand is escalated action here.”

Ducey is sticking with his plan to slowly boost school funding, promising a 1 percent teacher raise and $100 million in funding for districts this year as a start to restoring nearly $400 million in cuts.

“We will continue each year to put more resources into K-12 education to better serve our teachers and students,” his spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, said in a Tuesday statement. “He meets with teachers regularly and wants to continue a dialogue about increasing our investment in Arizona schools and teachers.”

Republican House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said Tuesday that the Legislature remains focused on boosting school funding but warned that a strike could end up being “a bit of a mutual self-destruction scenario.”

“I think everybody is supportive of finding ways to get more money to schools, more money to the classroom, more money to teacher pay,” he said. “However, if you strike, that ratchets thing up to a whole other level with consequences. That impacts people all over the state and you could see some or many turn against that type of maneuver.”

Democratic Rep. Rebecca Rios, the minority leader, said she doesn’t fault the educators for wanting to walk out since they’ve been pushed to a “breaking point.”

She called Ducey’s proposed 1 percent raise for this year “insulting.” But the likelihood for anything greater is small, she said, with a Republican-controlled Legislature that has yet to act on the teachers’ demands, she said.

“If you want a different outcome, you have got to change the players at the table,” she said. “If we get to this next election and no one is paying the price for this crisis, then I guarantee you nothing is going to change,” she said.

Derek Harris, a co-founder of Arizona Educators United, took to Facebook Live on Monday night to share the news that a date was about to be set for a long-term walkout. He urged teachers to be sure they’re ready to leave their classrooms, to communicate with parents and seek the support of their superintendent or school boards for their job action.

“Do not wait anymore,” Harris said. “The time is coming, we need to make this happen and that mean you’ve got to get things in place.”

He also urged teachers to contact churches or day cares who could handle child care needs.

“If you don’t know what they’re going to eat for lunch that day, you’re not ready,” he said. “If you think the superintendent is going to come to your school and start handing out pink slips that day, you’re not ready.”

The campaign has been circulating an online petition in support of a walkout that had at least 16,750 signatures as of Tuesday morning.

Another petition supporting the #RedforEd demands had nearly 37,000 signatures.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Arizona elementary teachers earned a median wage of $43,280 in 2017 and high school teachers $46,470, the third and sixth lowest in the nation, respectively. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers actually rank 49th in earnings and high school teachers 48th.

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Associated Press writer Adam Kealoha Causey in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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