The average income for elementary school teachers in Arizona ranks last in the United States. On March 28, Arizona teachers and supporters plan to gather in Tucson, Phoenix, and northern Arizona for a “Day of Action” against the condition of the state’s education system.
Two grassroots rank and file organizations are spearheading the protest. One of those campaigns is Arizona Educators United, a group that formed just a couple weeks ago and is heavily inspired by West Virginia’s recent teacher strike.
Noah Karvelis, a music teacher in the Littleton Elementary School District and an organizer for the Arizona Educators United, told Shadowproof he believed West Virginia’s strike was “inspirational” for Arizona teachers. He said it “woke up a sleeping giant” throughout the country.
Karvelis said the group’s primary goal is to establish pay increases and secure affordable healthcare for educators throughout the state, but he also mentioned teachers are seeking reduced class sizes.
According to a report by the Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy, median pay for elementary school teachers in Arizona ranks 50th nationwide, while pay for the state’s high school teachers ranks 49th. A high percentage of teachers leave the profession “within their first few years.”
Arizona’s GOP Governor Doug Ducey recently claimed teacher’s salaries increased by 4.4 percent last year and that the average income was now $48,000. This statement led Elisabeth Milich, a second grade teacher at Whispering Wind Academy, to post her pay stub on social media.
Despite the fact she has taught for seven years, Milich’s annual salary is $13,000 less than what Ducey claims. “I don’t know who they’re talking about,” she told a local news stations, “because I know what I live. I see my print out. And I can’t tell you how many hundreds of teachers have said mine looks exactly like that.”
Karvelis contended there are a lot of exaggerated numbers being put out to diminish teacher struggles and many of these statistics come from reports generated by corporations with a vested interested in the privatization of the state’s educational system.
“There are schools in this state that don’t even have running water,” Karvelis said. “They’re trying to shut us up and it’s not working.”
Earlier this month, hundreds of protesters showed up outside a Phoenix radio station, where Governor Ducey was giving an interview, to demand higher pay. Some chanted “WHAT’S THE PLAN DUCEY, WHAT’S THE PLAN!”
“There’s a lot of talented teachers that I’ve seen leave the classroom because of their salaries,” second grade teacher Lupita Almanza told the Arizona Republic while outside the station.
“They can’t make it work. It’s not a livable wage for them. I live paycheck to paycheck.”
The other coalition helping to organize the protest is Save Our Schools Arizona, an organization that coalesced after a vast expansion of school vouchers was pushed by the Republican state legislature in 2017.
That piece of legislation, SB 1431, was praised by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a “big win” and was expected to pass easily. However, Save Our Schools was able to mount an astounding amount of resistance in a very short amount of time. The group had to get 75,000 signatures from Arizona voters in just 3 months, and since they knew that perhaps 25 percent of the signatures would turn out to be invalid or registered incorrectly, they also knew that they would really need 100,000 signatures.
Through mass volunteer recruitment and unceasing activism, Save Our Schools ended up winning. The voucher expansion will be on the ballot in November in the form of Proposition 305, and voters will be able to decide if it should be implemented
“None of [our] efforts required a politician’s skills, or took a lot of money,” wrote James Arwood, the Save our Schools Arizona field manager for the Phoenix area. “What they did require was care, hard work, and a belief that we can do something about Arizona’s classroom crisis.”
Earlier this year, supporters of the voucher program mounted a legal challenge to try to stop the referendum, but the lawsuit was tossed out of court by the judge.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, a local educator and communications director for Save Our Schools, said Prop 305 is a “major step toward the privatization of education” in Arizona. She said the proposed voucher program would divert millions of dollars from an already underfunded public education system in order to enrich private schools in the state’s wealthiest areas.
“Many are watching this pushed while the school in their neighborhood is falling into disrepair,” said Thacker.
Organizations like Arizona Educators United and Save Our Schools Arizona are not only up against the state’s conservative government. They are taking on a vast network of right-wing dark money at the same time.
Charles and David Koch, the Koch Brothers, view Arizona as “ground zero” in their fight to privatize education and are expected to spend considerable amounts of money to pass Prop 305
Governor Ducey has been a member of the Koch network since 2011 and a business coalition made up of his allies recently spent $1 million to run local ads praising his record on education. Ducey recently told a group of Koch donors that the voucher battle was, “a very real fight in my state. I didn’t run for governor to play small ball.”
At that same event, Ducey introduced Steve Perry, the headmaster of Capital Prep Charter Schools, who has been traveling throughout Arizona to drum up support for Prop 305. “The teacher unions are unencumbered by the truth,” Perry told the assembled donors. “It is a distant relative that is never invited to dinner.”
Teacher unions might be the perceived enemy of people like Perry, but what’s striking about Arizona is that, like West Virginia and Oklahoma, the fight for public education is driven by rank-and-file teachers and organizers, not the establishment unions in the region.
Arizona is a right-to-work state where labor unions lack power. Although no one is talking about a strike yet, a work stoppage by teachers would technically be illegal.
Teacher unions might be the perceived enemy of people like Perry, but what’s striking about Arizona is that, like West Virginia recently and Oklahoma currently, the fight for public education is being driven by rank-and-file teachers and organizers, not the establishment unions in the region. Arizona is a right-to-work state where labor unions lack power. Although no one is talking strike yet, a work stoppage by teachers would technically be illegal.
According to Karvelis, his group’s priorities will be reassessed after the protest and specific demands may potentially be formulated by organizers.
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