Arizona teachers weigh risks of a strike as they urge change

Arizona teachers weigh risks of a strike as they urge change
The Associated Press

PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona teachers voting Wednesday on whether to launch an unprecedented strike to demand more school funding weighed the potential pitfalls of walking off the job with the desire for change in the education system.

Some teachers say enough is enough, and a walkout will help show that their mission isn’t just to secure a raise for some of the nation’s lowest-paid educators but to get more money for students.

“I think we wouldn’t be, at this point, even considering a walkout if things weren’t so bad in the first place,” said Andrew Brothers, a music teacher at Paseo Verde Elementary School in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria.

He was among about two dozen teachers gathered as part of demonstrations held at schools statewide. Teachers waved signs and wore red to support their grass-roots #RedforEd campaign that’s prompted weeks of protests as well as vote on whether to strike.

The vote that stretches through Thursday comes after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey offered teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020. A grass-roots group that’s mobilized tens of thousands of teachers says Ducey’s plan doesn’t address other needs, including raises for support staff and a return to pre-Great Recession school funding levels.

Arizona has followed Republican-dominant states in demanding higher pay. The movement started in West Virginia, where a strike garnered a raise, and spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky and most recently Colorado.

But the potential for educators to walk out in Arizona is causing confusion about what the repercussions could be in this right-to-work state, where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory.

A 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion said a statewide strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials. The Arizona Education Association, the largest teacher membership group, said the opinion led it to inform its 20,000 members of the risks of a walkout.

Chelsea Chitwood, a history teacher at Apollo High School in Glendale, Arizona, said teachers were still protesting because they want to provide more for their students. But she had yet to vote Wednesday morning.

“I think that’s our last card to play,” she said. “So it needs to be at the perfect time. We’ll see.”

Ashley Hobbs, who teaches English at Dobson High School in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, was skeptical that a walkout was the best move forward. She noted that hourly workers in some school districts might not get paid during a walkout and that teachers might look too demanding with a raise on the table.

“We really do have to weigh public sentiment at this point,” said Hobbs, who ultimately decided to vote for a walkout.

The governor’s proposal has drawn support from the business community and some school organizations. But others are concerned about finding the money to cover a plan that would cost about $650 million when fully implemented.

One education advocacy group, Save Our Schools Arizona, said it initially was “cautiously optimistic” about Ducey’s plan but is now worried it isn’t a “sustainable or comprehensive” way to reinvest in schools.

The governor says money will come from increased state revenue, decreases in social service caseloads and changes in other budget proposals.

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said in an email that the plan is funded with “the state’s most reliable funding source: the general fund. It’s in the base and will be an ongoing commitment.”

Meanwhile, teachers supporting the strike say they’re focused on improving the future for themselves and their students.

“We either risk short-term consequences, or we risk long-term consequences,” said Jennifer Ramirez Zamarron, a high school teacher at Trevor G. Browne High School in Phoenix.

“I would rather put an effort toward short-term consequences, like, ‘Oh, my kids went without instruction for X amount of days,’ versus ‘My kids went without funding for X amount of years,'” she said.

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Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Glendale contributed to this report.

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