Arizona teacher union's governor endorsement in midst of protest criticized
Teachers and education advocates speak out against low wages March 7, 2018, at the Arizona Education Association, which announced its endorsement of David Garcia for governor. Sean Logan/azcentral.com
In the middle of arguably the largest teacher demonstration in recent Arizona history Wednesday, the state's teachers' union essentially called a TV time out — to endorse a political candidate.
And it didn't go over well for some.
Thousands of educators and supporters on Wednesday wore red to school as part of a grassroots #RedForEd protest to push for higher teacher pay. The coordinated effort had been planned over the weekend.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Arizona Education Association sent out a media release announcing big news would happen at the group's headquarters Wednesday morning, but not detailing what it would be. The release said only that the AEA "will make an announcement on behalf of the 20,000 teachers and education support professionals we represent in the state."
Some thought it might be details of a possible teacher strike.
It turned out to be a union endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Garcia.
Clearing the air
Joe Thomas, president of the AEA, and Noah Karvelis, an organizer of the grassroots Arizona Educators United responsible for the #RedForEd protest, both said their events were entirely separate from the other.
Karvelis said the Arizona Educators United movement is "being led by teachers, not the union." He said the group was not going to make any political endorsements.
Arizona Educators United organizers further reiterated their group's nonpartisan stance in a statement posted on their new website Thursday.
"We strive to remain apolitical and shall not endorse any political candidate or position, regardless of party or organizational affiliation or lack thereof," the statement read.
"We wish to keep our focus on what matters most – our students and their right to the best education possible."
But the fact that the protest and endorsement occurred on the same day appeared to puzzle some educators.
It also led some critics and observers to either accuse the AEA of capitalizing on the grassroots momentum of educators' protest, or believe that the #RedForEd protest was part of the backdrop for the union's political endorsement.
"The teachers who wore red had no idea that we were going to be doing a conference that day," Thomas told The Arizona Republic. "And we didn’t know when we were planning the conference that #RedForEd was going to happen that day."
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Thomas took issue with the criticism, saying it was a political attempt "to once again silence teachers."
"Teachers all across the state wore red and felt empowered and like, for the first time, somebody was listening to them," Thomas said. "And now, instead of acknowledging that, you have these political operatives trying to once again diminish the voice of teachers."
Thomas said the AEA and Garcia campaign began coordinating the endorsement announcement Friday.
Timing 'was in poor taste'
Matthew Benson, a Republican political consultant, said he believed the Garcia campaign and AEA "effectively co-opted the (#RedForEd) movement today by choosing this day to announce their endorsement of Garcia for governor."
"For right or wrong, it appears for anybody looking at it from the outside that this was all a campaign event," Benson said.
Educators debated the timing of the AEA's endorsement on social media. Some commented that it was a poor decision, some said they didn't see any fault and others said they hoped it didn't take attention away from the protest and its message of unity.
Ben Sullens, a Phoenix National Board Certified teacher, participated in the #RedForEd protest because he hopes the mobilization of Arizona educators can bring "sustainable change."
He said the protest brought together "a lot of teachers who, regardless of political affiliation and location in our state, are done with not making enough money."
Sullens said the timing of the AEA's endorsement announcement "was in poor taste."
“Today was not the day to do it," Sullens said Wednesday. "Today was one of those days where it needs to be about educators having a voice.”
Teachers across Arizona participated in the #RedForEd movement that protested low wages for teachers.