Arizona teachers demand 20 percent raises, more money for students
Frustrated and desperate, Arizona educators are demanding 20 percent pay raises to address the state's teacher crisis and have threatened to take escalated action if state leaders don't respond with urgency.
About 2,500 teachers and their supporters — clad in a sea of red — cheered organizers of the Arizona Educators United grassroots group as they announced their list of demands of Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature at a Wednesday evening rally at the Capitol.
The educators said Ducey and state legislators have failed Arizona's students and teachers by not adequately funding public education.
The organizers said they will give the governor and state lawmakers through the end of this legislative session to act on their demands, and said they would go on strike if they did not.
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“Governor Ducey, Legislature, the last thing that any of us want to do is go on strike, but if we have to, we will,” said Dylan Wegela, an organizer and teacher in the Cartwright School District.
"Arizona Educators United is prepared to do whatever it takes to reach our demands," Wegela said. "However, we will do everything in our power to avoid a strike. As educators, we’re willing to put kids first, even when the state won’t.”
Noah Karvelis and Dylan Wegela, both teachers and leaders in Arizona Educators United, list their demands during a #RedForEd rally at the Arizona state Capitol. David Wallace/azcentral.com
Patrick Ptak, spokesman for Ducey, said in a statement Wednesday evening that the governor "believes teachers are the biggest difference-makers out there" and that "more needs to be done, but our state has made progress."
"(The governor's) goal is to pass a budget in the next few weeks that continues to increase our investment in public education, but we won't stop there," Ptak said.
"We will continue each year to put more resources into K-12 education to better serve our teachers and students. (Ducey) meets with teachers regularly and wants to continue a dialogue about increasing our investment in Arizona schools and teachers."
Ptak did not directly address any of the teachers' demands.
TEACHERS: We want to hear from you
The rally, marked by thousands of educators who wielded creative signs and loudly chanted their frustrations, put on display the mobilization efforts of the grassroots Arizona Educators United group.
The movement began spontaneously in early March when a group of teachers banded together on social media and has since grown to include 38,000 members on its private Facebook page.
The rallygoers chanted, "We will win! We will win!" after the organizers listed their demands.
What teachers are demanding
The median pay for Arizona elementary teachers is $42,474, when adjusted for cost of living. A 20 percent increase would amount to $8,495, for a total of $50,969.
The total price tag for such a raise is unclear. State officials have estimated a 1 percent pay hike for teachers costs about $34 million, meaning a 20 percent raise could cost the state about $680 million.
That increase would still place an Arizona elementary teacher who makes the median salary below the national median of $55,800, as well as below pay medians for neighboring state such as New Mexico ($59,047) and Utah ($54,814).
Some of the demands announced Wednesday overlap. Besides the 20 percent teacher raises, educators' demands are:
- Restoring state education funding to 2008 levels. Arizona spends $924 less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars today than it did in 2008, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Restoring education funding to that level would cost the state about $1 billion.
- Competitive pay for all education support professionals, such as teachers' aides and paraprofessionals. Dollar figures for this weren't specified Wednesday.
- A "permanent" step-and-lane salary structure in which teachers are guaranteed annual raises and steady advancement in wages.
- No new tax cuts until the state's per-pupil funding reaches the national average. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2015 figures, the most recent available, Arizona spent $7,489 per pupil compared with the national average of $11,392.
Thousands of #RedForEd Arizona teachers rally for more education funding at the state Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. Thomas Hawthorne/azcentral.com
This month, scores of teachers have publicly — and often spontaneously — protested their low pay and the state's low education funding as part of Arizona's #RedForEd movement.
The effort was inspired in part by teachers in West Virginia who went on strike for nine days and successfully negotiated 5 percent raises, as well as educators in Oklahoma who are on course to take similar action next week.
Many teachers have made emotional pleas for the state to address their pay, saying their low salaries have forced them to live with parents, work multiple jobs, hold off on starting families or quit teaching entirely to make ends meet.
Teachers and education advocates have said the pay issue threatens Arizona students' access to qualified teachers and a quality public education because it's caused thousands of experienced teachers to leave Arizona's classrooms.
Organizers told educators and supporters Wednesday that their demands have been long overdue.
They said they hoped the firm and ambitious targeted raise would further mobilize teachers across Arizona for statewide action and galvanize support from parents and their communities.
“We have laid out the facts," Alexis Aguirre, an elementary teacher in the Osborn School District, told rallygoers Wednesday. "Arizona is last in teacher pay. There are more than 2,000 positions still left unfilled, and the $1 billion funding gap is swirling wider.
"Instead of responding with cooperation and problem solving, we are ignored, dismissed and contradicted. If lawmakers will not stand up for Arizona children, then we will."
The Day of Action for Education took place at the State Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. Hundreds of teachers, their family members and supporters gathered to encourage lawmakers to increase teacher salaries. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
At odds with state leaders
Arizona Educators United organizers did not present an immediate proposal on how the state would pay for the 20 percent raises.
The demands announced Wednesday would likely require raising taxes, putting teachers at odds with the governor and several conservative Republican legislators in power who've publicly said they will do no such thing.
Ducey, who is running for re-election this November, won office in 2014 on a promise to cut taxes every year he's in office.
In recent years, the governor and Legislature have operated on a strategy of reallocating existing state funds and using the wiggle room they have in each budget toward investments in education spending while still enacting new tax cuts.
The governor and Legislature, currently in budget discussions, are weighing a $400 million education funding proposal by Ducey that includes the second half of a promised 2 percent teacher pay increase. Teachers got the first half last year.
The voter-approved Proposition 301 six-tenths of a cent sales tax benefits various education programs. It is set to expire in 2021.
The governor's budget proposal includes $100 million for capital costs. About 30 percent of the $400 million figure is funding for inflation and growth that the state is required to fund.
Voters in 2016 passed Proposition 123, a ballot measure that settled a longstanding inflation-funding school lawsuit for 70 cents on the dollar.
Ducey this week signed legislation that extends, through 2041, an education sales tax that brings about $667 million a year to Arizona schools. The law does not raise tax rates, nor does it give schools any more money than what they're currently receiving, though it shuffled around some of the money to go toward teachers and classroom spending.
Lawmakers fast-tracked the legislation last week after more than a month of inaction. Republican lawmakers said it could provide teachers a 2 percent increase in pay, when it goes into effect in 2021.
Increase is necessary, teachers say
The state's finances reeled from budget deficits following the recession, forcing many school districts to freeze teacher salaries in the years that followed.
Arizona education funding has yet to fully recover.
Median pay for Arizona’s elementary school teachers has dropped by 11 percent since 2001, according to a May 2017 report by Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
Teachers on social media have blamed their near-stagnant wages on what they say has been the state's slow response in addressing a statewide crisis.
Lindsay Breon, a physical-education teacher at Washington Elementary School in Phoenix, shares her feelings at the #RedForEd rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. David Wallace/azcentral.com
Several teachers who completed an Arizona Republic online survey first published in June said they've worked in the profession for multiple years — some as many as 10 years — and still make less than $40,000 a year.
Much of the public's response to the wave of activism among teachers this month has been sympathetic.
Still, a majority of the criticism on social media regarding the #RedForEd movement has been lobbed at the perceptions that teachers' outcry is overblown and that educators knew what they signed up for when they entered a profession known for its low pay.
Teachers have tried to counter that argument, with some sharing their pay stubs showing the loss in take-home pay following years of little to no growth in salary advancement.
Teacher organizers said they did not expect state leaders to respond to their demands enthusiastically.
The possibility of a work stoppage will depend on how the governor and state legislators respond to their demands for pay and school funding, as well as the level of support among educators, they said.
They said they plan to organize hundreds of teacher "walk-ins" similar to Monday's Chandler Unified School District rally in the coming days and weeks. The walk-ins will not disrupt school operations.
Hundreds of teachers wore red and marched together in Olympic-style procession with their schools along Arizona Avenue in Chandler on Monday. Lorraine Longhi/The Republic
Since the start, Arizona educators have discussed among themselves the possibility of a statewide walkout or strike.
Teachers' responses have varied. On social media, many have expressed support or interest; others have raised concerns about how it would affect their jobs and their paychecks. And many others said they would decide once they knew what they'd be asking of state leaders.
Any widespread action needs to be well-thought out, coordinated to include schools across the state and supported by parents and school administrators, organizers said.
Key events in Arizona's #RedForEd movement:
Feb. 22: All 55 school districts in West Virginia shut down as their teachers began what would end up being a nine-day strike in support of higher wages.
March 4: One week into a widespread teachers' strike in West Virginia, a group of Arizona teachers create the private Arizona Educators United Facebook group. The group currently has about 37,000 members.
March 7: The day after West Virginia's governor ends the teachers' strike with a 5 percent pay increase, thousands of educators and supporters across Arizona take part in the #RedForEd silent demonstration in protest of teachers' low pay.
March 12: About 300 teachers aligned with the Arizona Educators United grassroots group march and protest outside a Phoenix radio station where Gov. Doug Ducey was scheduled to do an interview. The teachers and Ducey did not interact.
March 14: At the state Capitol, hundreds of educators stage a #RedForEd demonstration in opposition of legislation that would expand aspects of the state's private-school tuition tax credit program.
March 20: Two teachers in the Pendergast Elementary School District organize a spontaneous sick-out after venting about usual frustrations while on a coffee run before the start of the school day.
March 21: Hundreds of Pendergast teachers don't show up to work in protest, forcing the closure nine schools in the West Valley for the day because they do not have enough teachers to safely operate.
March 26: Hundreds of teachers in the Chandler Unified School District, one of Arizona's largest districts, march in support of the #RedForEd movement in what is the first of what organizers say will be many demonstrations across the state. None of the rallies, intended to further mobilize teachers across the state, disrupted school operations.
March 28: About 2,500 educators and their supporters march on the Capitol, where they announce demands for 20 percent pay raises from Ducey and the Legislature.
Arizona State Democratic Rep. Daniel Hernandez Jr. talks about teacher pay and the issues they face. Nick Oza/azcentral.com
Republic reporters Kaila White, Lily Altavena, Andrew Nicla and BrieAnna J. Frank contributed to this article.
Reach the reporter at Ricardo.Cano@gannett.com and 602-444-8236. Follow him on Twitter: @Ricardo_Cano1