The red-state teacher revolt came to Arizona on Thursday, as thousands of educators staged a walkout and converged on Phoenix to demand more school funding from the state legislature.
The protest was expected to close about three-quarters of Arizona’s school districts as teachers reported their absences ahead of time, according to an analysis by the Arizona Republic. Schools in the state’s 30 largest districts did not open on Thursday.
Organizers said they were expecting tens of thousands of teachers at the Phoenix rally. The massive protest follows other recent walkouts that closed schools in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Teachers in all those states have rebelled against years of education cuts that led to stagnating salaries, overcrowded classrooms and dwindling school resources.
The Arizona walkout has been in the works for weeks, after the successful strike in West Virginia in late February and March led to 5 percent pay raises for teachers and state employees. Organizers have billed the walkout as #REDforED, with participants and supporters wearing red clothes as a show of solidarity.
The group coordinating the walkout, Arizona Educators United, has not said how long it will last. Some districts have said they plan to remain closed for as long as their teachers participate.
“Our goal is to ensure that students have access to highly qualified and experienced teachers, that educators are compensated fairly, and to improve the educational environment in the state of Arizona.”
Arizona Educators United has released a list of concrete demands, including a 20 percent pay raise for teachers and certified staff, a return of school funding to pre-recession levels, and a moratorium on tax cuts until the state’s per-pupil spending meets the national average.
“Our goal is to ensure that students have access to highly qualified and experienced teachers, that educators are compensated fairly, and to improve the educational environment in the state of Arizona,” the group said on its walkout planning website.
The root cause of the Arizona walkout is essentially the same as in West Virginia and Oklahoma.
Just like in those other states, Arizona legislators now find themselves in a jam after years of tax cuts. Funding has dropped as corporate and personal income taxes have fallen, and per-student spending remains far below what it was a decade ago. The loss of revenue has left the state with little money to pump into schools or salaries.
The walkouts have put tremendous pressure on lawmakers to raise taxes in states where Republican leaders are loath to do so. In the case of Oklahoma, the threat of a school shutdown led to the first tax hike in nearly three decades, overcoming a supermajority requirement that three-quarters of lawmakers approve it.
In Arizona, Republicans control both chambers of the statehouse, and the governor is Doug Ducey, a Republican. Ducey has laid out a plan to give teachers the 20 percent raise over the course of several years, but it mostly relies on rosy projections that tax revenue will increase due to an improved economy, as well as cuts to other programs. The state’s teachers unions have dismissed Ducey’s proposal.
The American Federation of Teachers-Arizona, one of the state’s main unions, has called for a 2.5 percent tax on services, such as consulting and legal services, which it estimates would raise $2.65 billion a year for school infrastructure, supplies and pay increases. One lawmaker has instead proposed a temporary, three-year increase of the state sales tax by 1 percent as a “bridge” to a longer-term solution.
Without a clear plan laid out by lawmakers, teachers voted last week to take part in the walkout. The Arizona Education Association union said 78 percent of the more than 50,000 teachers and support staffers who voted supported the move.