When the final school bells rang Wednesday, thousands of teachers across the state walked off the job with no idea how long the strike would last, or under what circumstances they would return to their students.
Leaders of Arizona Educators United, the grass-roots group pushing for more education funding, have been noncommittal about how long the strike will go on and what realistic solution could bring it to a close, saying those decisions are going to have to come from the teachers themselves and that the organization is taking it day by day.
Gov. Doug Ducey has ignored the group’s demands to meet with him. Lawmakers have shown no real effort to approve the more than $1 billion in new revenue educators are demanding to bring education funding back to pre-recession levels.
Ducey is sticking to his 20x2020 plan, which would provide 9 percent raises to teachers this year, with the promise of an additional 10 percent over the next two years.
His office is lobbying wary Republican lawmakers to approve the teacher-pay increase that many Republican lawmakers see as built on unsustainable, rosier-than-reality revenue projections. The governor is even courting wary Democrats, who argue the plan doesn’t do enough to solve Arizona’s education-funding woes.
“This is a more aggressive plan than anything else that’s been presented by anyone, and it’s doable,” said Ducey’s spokesman Daniel Scarpinato.
But leaders of the Arizona Educators United #RedForEd movement have rejected the governor’s proposal, saying while it would be a boon to teachers, it won’t address the myriad other problems facing schools: crumbling buildings, old textbooks and ancient computers, and support staffers who earn minimum wage.
The walkout will go on with or without Ducey’s raise, they say.
“For Ducey to assume people are just going to be content with what he wants to offer is reckless, just like his plan is reckless,” said Derek Harris, a teacher at Tucson’s Dietz K-8 School and the local leader of Arizona Educators United.
A budget bill — with or without the raise — has not yet been introduced at the Capitol. Thursday marks the 109th day of the legislative session, which is supposed to end after 100 days maximum. In an election year, lawmakers usually try to close up earlier than that.
School is rushing toward a close, with most classes scheduled to let out in five weeks. And while many school districts say they have enough days built into their school year to withstand a two-day walkout, any extension of the strike will cause schools to prolong their year and postpone summer vacations.
Which leaves teachers, lawmakers, students and parents with a lingering question: How and when will the strike end?
There are four obvious paths to a resolution, though only one would realistically result in a win for #RedForEd.
When the #RedForEd movement announced its strike last Thursday night, Joe Thomas, president of Arizona Education Association, which has been working closely with Arizona Educators United, said schools need at least $1 billion that has been cut in the past decade.
Thomas claimed there are enough votes at the Legislature to approve a tax increase, but when asked where the money will come from, he pointed at lawmakers.
“The simple answer is, that’s their job to find the money. We give them that power as elected officials,” he said.
The majority of Republican lawmakers do not support increasing taxes, or rolling back tax cuts, this year to supplement education funding.
A proposal by Republican Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott to increase the sales tax by 1 cent for three years has gone nowhere.
Even if lawmakers did pass a tax increase, Ducey won’t sign it into law. The governor promised to never raise taxes, and Scarpinato confirmed he hasn’t had a change of heart.
“Why would we raise taxes when we have more revenues than spending?” Scarpinato said.
But Thomas is holding out hope, saying with enough pressure, things may change.
“If in January someone told me that we would have a Proposition 301 extension passed legislatively, that there would be $100 million in district additional assistance in every budget anybody is talking about, and that there would be $300 million on the table for teacher raises, I would have laughed,” he said.
Sending the question of a 1 cent sales-tax increase to voters via a legislative referendum would bypass the requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber of the Legislature. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are cool, if not flat-out dismissive, of that plan.
Republicans note that Arizona already has one of the highest sales-tax rates in the country. Democrats argue that the state’s reliance on the sales tax regressively hurts the poor, and sets up an unreliable funding source that ebbs and flows with the economy.
Republican lawmakers and Ducey hope that after the ink is dry on a budget that includes significant raises for teachers this year, teachers and the public will see they are making a real investment in education, the movement will fizzle and teachers will go back to work.
Republican Rep. Paul Boyer of Phoenix, chair of the House Education Committee and a teacher at a charter school, argued that teachers will start to lose public support for their cause if the public sees them as complaining about a raise most working families can only dream of.
And he noted that after lawmakers pass a budget, they’re going to adjourn for the year.
“So they’re going to come down here and protest while nobody’s around? I guess they could,” he said.
Scarpinato said the governor’s budget, which includes $100 million this year for district and charter additional assistance, is a historic investment in K-12 education that proves the governor has heard the public’s demands, and is taking education funding seriously.
“This is the plan in front of us right now. The budget process is coming to a close, and this legislative session is coming to a close. So now is the time to act on this plan, which is the best plan out there,” he said.
His boss put it in starker terms when talking to Arizona Capitol Media Service’s Howard Fischer.
“If we move a 20 percent raise to the teachers and there is an ongoing strike, that doesn’t make sense,” Ducey said.
Harris said the movement fizzling has always been a possibility, especially after Ducey’s offer.
“When the landscape changes, you change tactics,” he said.
Leaders of the movement and union supporters have long said a citizens’ initiative — the process by which citizens collect signatures to propose a law on the ballot — is on the table.
But they’ve played their cards extremely close to the chest and have refused to discuss what that initiative would look like, and whether it’s already on paper, ready to go. They’ve maintained that the Legislature created the problem, and the onus is on lawmakers to resolve it.
Thomas, the AEA president, said he hadn’t heard of anyone drafting a specific initiative, but that people are eyeing the initiative process in general, if the Legislature doesn’t act.
The difficulty, he noted, is settling on which funding sources it will use, and what it will fund.
An initiative would have the advantage of being essentially set in stone, while a law created by the Legislature can always be amended by the Legislature, he noted.
But time is running out. An initiative for the November ballot would need a minimum of 150,642 valid signatures from registered Arizona voters before the July 5 deadline to qualify for the ballot. To be safe from legal challenges, the initiative will need a cushion of about 30 percent, or roughly 200,000 signatures.
Harris said Arizona Educators United is waiting to see what teachers decide to do after Thursday and Friday’s walkout before discussing “next steps.”
There are signs an initiative is on the horizon. Arizona Educators United published a leader training manual which included a timeline stating there was a tentative plan in May and June to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to raise education revenue.
Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at email@example.com or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight.
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