PHOENIX — Three years ago on April 26, Arizona witnessed one of the largest political demonstrations in state history. An estimated 50,000 teachers, parents, and students rallied at the state capitol in the Red for Ed protests.
Today, questions remain about what the movement really accomplished, and whether we could see another Red for Ed in the future.
Organizers say the demonstrations were a culmination of years of frustration. For nearly a decade, starting before the Great Recession of 2008-2009, lawmakers cut education funding. Arizona found itself at or near the bottom in teacher salaries and spending per student.
"After so many years of that, do you get frustrated and think that, well either I’m going to stop talking about this and just do with what I have, or I’ve got to lift my voice even higher," said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.
"We have fantastic things going on, but it’s an unsustainable situation when you have the lowest pay, and the highest class sizes in the nation."
Spurred by successful demonstrations in West Virginia and Oklahoma, educators in Arizona staged a walkout, making five demands of the governor and state lawmakers. Teachers wanted a 20 percent raise, restoring funding to pre-recession levels, pay raises for support staff, along with a permanent funding source, and a freeze on tax cuts until Arizona spending matched the national average.
None of those demands were fully met. Since the demonstrations, the state has increased spending on schools, and Governor Doug Ducey has fulfilled a promise of a 20 percent pay increase, stretched out over three years, but teacher pay and per pupil spending remains at or near the bottom of all 50 states, according to census data.
Organizers still say, Red for Ed was successful.
"Absolutely that day and that week was an incredible success because so many educators saw the community standing with them in ways they hadn't before. So we were able to change the conversation," Thomas said.
Thomas credits Red for Ed for shifting public opinion, and the passage of Prop 208 "Invest in Ed" in November. The proposition imposes a 3.5% surcharge on incomes over $250,000 or $500,000 for a couple. Opponents continue to challenge the measure in court, and state lawmakers have attempted to create a new tax bracket, which would reduce the initiative's revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Educators remain frustrated, and Thomas won't rule out a repeat of the Red for Ed demonstrations.
"I know good educators will never stop advocating for their students. What form that takes, what shape that takes, it’s really up to the governor in the state legislature. We would love to sit down and have conversations with them and we do," he said. "The difficulty is, when you feel like you're being ignored, you look for a different tactic."