Arizona teachers protest low pay at Capitol

AZ teachers plan statewide action over low pay
Posted at 5:28 AM, Mar 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-29 18:01:57-04

Thousands of teachers descended on the Arizona state Capitol on Wednesday to demand a 20 percent pay raise and increases to public education funding, which they say was $1 billion higher before the Great Recession.

Clad in red shirts and carrying signs with the hashtag RedforEd, demonstrators filled the lawns of the capitol for a three-hour protest.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety estimates there was approximately 2,500 people at the rally. 

Kelley Fisher, a 20-year teaching veteran who attended Wednesday's demonstration, said education funding should be increased so educators don't have to take multiple jobs.

"I really feel like everyone has been pushed to the brink at this point, and if we're going to make a move, this is when it's going to be," she said.

Arizona teachers were galvanized into action by the success of a similar movement in West Virginia earlier this month where teachers won a five-percent raise after going on strike.

In Oklahoma, the Legislature narrowly averted a threatened teacher walk-out by passing tax hikes on Wednesday that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars for salaries.

Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers in Arizona rank 50th in earnings nationally and high school teachers rank 49th.

Arizona schools faced massive cuts after the Great Recession as state revenues plunged. But despite the economic recovery, schools are still getting substantially less in state money than in 2008 even as the Republican-controlled Legislature passes new tax cuts each year.

Last week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation to extend a sales tax that provides more than $500 million a year for K-12 schools until 2041.

But the teachers protesting on Wednesday continued to put the onus on the governor, breaking out into chants of "What's the plan, Ducey?" and hoisting signs that read "Hey Ducey, where's my raise?" Many donned stickers that read "I don't want to strike, but I will."

"The governor likes to say he wants to run our state like a business," said Dawn Penich-Thacker from Save Our Schools Arizona. "Well, businesses invest in their workforce, and they recruit the best, and we need to be doing that in our schools."

Ducey's office issued a statement Wednesday that said the governor "believes teachers are the biggest difference-makers out there." The statement said that teacher salaries have increased 4.3 percent from 2016 to 2017, but that the governor plans to continue a dialogue with teachers about increasing investment in schools.

A budget plan presented in January included $34 million for the second year of a teacher raise enacted last year, bringing the total raise to 2 percent.

"His goal for to pass a budget in the next few weeks that continues to increase our investment in public education, but we won't stop there," the statement said. "We will continue each year to put more resources into K-12 education to better serve our teachers and students."

"It's complicated," State Sen. John Kavanagh, (R) Appropriations Committee Chairman, said. He says tax increases to pay for K-12 education are off the table. Kavanagh says voters have opposed the idea in the past, and many legislators campaigned on a pledge to not raise taxes.  

He also said there are competing interests for the money.

"We have public safety, corrections, disabilities community," Kavanagh said. "A lot of people are trying to get a limited amount of money, but teachers have been given No. 1 priority."

In Arizona, the new demands include that the state freeze all tax cuts until per-pupil spending catches up to national levels. A state audit from March 2017 shows that per-pupil spending here averages $9,136, compared to a national average of almost $12,500.

The demands were unveiled by the grassroots group Arizona Educators United at a Capitol protest organized in conjunction with Save Our Schools Arizona and the Arizona PTA.

Arizona Educators United has held three Capitol protests since early March. A sickout-- where teachers collectively take sick leave as a form of protest -- that was held last week by Pendergast Elementary School District teachers shuttered most schools in the west Phoenix and Glendale districts.

"Our state has never seen educators stand up like this," said Noah Karvelis, one of the Arizona Educators United co-founders.

The demands also include competitive pay for education support professionals, a permanent teacher salary structure with annual raises, and a restoration of education funding to 2008 levels. Pre-recession funding was $1 billion higher than current figures, according to education funding advocates at AZ Schools Now.

Areyell Williams, a first-grade teacher in the Creighton School District, said she's dismayed that with a master's degree, she still has to coach sports and work other jobs to make ends meet.

Low pay and large classes are pushing teachers away from the profession, Williams said. But she wants to stay in it for the long-term.

"I hate that I love it so much," she said. "Your heart won't let you walk away."