Thousands of Arizona educators rallied outside their schools Wednesday morning as tensions increased between teachers, who are demanding better pay and more school funding, and Republican politicians at the Capitol, who say the demands are unreasonable.
Educators wore red and chanted while carrying signs during the “walk-ins,” which are meant to gauge support for school walkouts. Organizers say the walkouts could happen as early as this week if lawmakers refuse to significantly increase education funding.
More than 130 school districts, 1,100 schools and 22,000 people took part statewide, according to organizers, as part of a grassroots movement pushing for a 20 percent raise and more than $1 billion in new education funding.
Arizona’s demonstration is part of a wave of educators demanding higher pay that started in West Virginia, where teachers successfully won a 5 percent raise after a statewide strike.
Oklahoma teachers have walked out in protest over education funding, and Kentucky educators called in sick to protest pension reform. Arizona teachers are considering a strike.
The grassroots group Arizona Educators United has mobilized teachers and supporters across the state through their #RedforEd campaign. In addition to a 20 percent pay bump, they’re seeking increased pay for support professionals, a permanent raise structure, and a freeze on corporate tax cuts until per-pupil spending reaches the national average.
Derek Harris, a teacher at Dietz K-8 school on Tucson’s east side and lead organizer with Arizona Educators United, rallied outside the school with roughly 20 supporters, live-streaming an update to the movement’s 35,000 Facebook followers about the day’s walk-ins, and urging them to count the supporters who showed up.
“We gotta get some data, we gotta get some numbers to show how strong we really are,” he said.
He said although Wednesday’s turnout was encouraging, and showed the movement has statewide support, organizers still need to be sure the public — and the teachers — are on their side before making the bold decision to strike, if necessary.
“Asking people to walk out of their schools is a much bigger ask than ‘Hey, hold this sign for 30 minutes,’” he said, adding, “We have to be sure our communities are ready for it, because we’re not going to leave our kids and families stranded.”
The Arizona protests came a day after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey defended his school funding plan and called talk of a teacher strike a partisan ploy.
“What I’ve heard from teachers is that they don’t want to walk out — they want to solve this problem,” he said on KTAR radio Tuesday evening. “And I’ll tell you the people that are playing politics, they want to walk out.”
At Tucson High Magnet School in Tucson Unified School District, roughly 75 teachers and supporters crowded the corners and marched along the street chanting “teachers united will never be divided” as passing cars honked in support.
At the Rincon/University High School campus, roughly 100 teachers walked in to school after protesting before the first bell.
At Canyon del Oro High School in the Amphitheater School District, more than 50 educators and supporters turned out in red to support the movement.
At Cienega High School in the Vail School District, Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker made an appearance, noting he has been in communication with the governor’s office about school funding.
At Liberty Elementary School in the Sunnyside School District, dozens of students, parents and teachers gathered outside to show their support for the #RedForEd movement.
At Flowing Wells High School in the Flowing Wells School District, more than 50 supporters wore red outside before the school day began.
Charter schools also got in on the action. Several Tucson-area charters, including Tucson Country Day School, took part in the event.
Wednesday’s walk-in came on the heels of two local school districts, Amphi and TUSD, voting Tuesday night to adopt resolutions supporting #RedForEd and calling on lawmakers to increase school funding.
Maurice Duarte, father of an 11-year-old at Dietz K-8 School, said he supported the teachers and hoped they would strike if lawmakers didn’t take action to increase education funding.
“Being a parent, it’s rough taking care of kids. Not only is the teacher teaching, but baby-sitting 20 or 30 kids. And the state has undercut the budget for schools, closed schools. Our governor, Doug Ducey, I don’t like that guy,” he said.
So far, Ducey and the Republican-controlled Legislature haven’t budged to the group’s demands. Ducey has stuck by his proposal for a 1 percent increase this year, while pledging that other funding will come down the road.
A lack of legislative action could trigger a massive reaction. On Monday, Arizona Educators United told its Facebook members to prepare for a possible walk-out this week that would close schools.
Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Arizona elementary teachers earned a median wage of $43,280 in 2017 and high school teachers $46,470, the third and sixth lowest in the nation, respectively. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers actually rank 49th in earnings and high school teachers 48th.