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An official strike date hasn't been set, but the teachers, following the playbooks from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, have staged multiple protests in individual districts and at the state capitol in Phoenix for the last five weeks, using the #RedforEd hashtag on Twitter to announce and document their protests. At the capitol this Wednesday, one group of teachers gave the legislature a progress report, and there are more "walk-ins," with teachers marching into their school buildings to demand better pay.
The organizing was fueled by a grassroots energy so strong, Thomas noted, it "caught everyone off guard." As in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky, they've been organizing through Facebook groups (which grew to 40,000 members in just three weeks, according to Thomas).
"We have the worst pay in the nation for our teachers," he continued, but pay is just the tip of the iceberg. Arizona teachers have been struggling with years of divestment from Republican governors who slashed education funding to pay for tax cuts.
Thomas dates the worst of Arizona's tax cuts back to the reaction to the 2008 Great Recession. "Before the recession, we were spending $1,000 more a student on supplies, teacher salaries and staff hirings and building repair, all of the money that goes into that."
Instead of investing in infrastructure and social services to spur post-Great Recession economic activity, Arizona's Republican governor at the time, Jan Brewer, voted for a package of corporate tax cuts, which she admitted in 2017 may have been too severe. She told the Arizona Capitol Times,
"Of course, it was a little bit too aggressive." The result, Brewer said, has been a reduction in revenues needed for state services. "Sooner or later, you have to pay the fiddler," she said.
Current Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, also a Republican, doesn't agree. Just days ago he declined to give teachers the 20 percent raise they asked for, and also vowed, as the Arizona Daily Sun reported, "to reverse any of the hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax cuts that have kicked in since he took office," some of which were signed when Brewer was still in office. "Each $100 million that was lost would translate to a 3 percent pay hike for teachers."
The strikes are contagious. It's been only a few weeks since West Virginia teachers went on strike, but earlier this week, Oklahoma teachers made good on the promises union organizers Alicia Priest and Mary Best explained to AlterNet in March -- to strike if their request for an approximately $10,000 pay raise was not met. They did so following the passage of a bill that gave them only $6,000 of the $10,000 they demanded, after nearly a decade without any raises.
In Kentucky, too, teachers protested at the state capitol in Frankfort, against sweeping cuts to their pensions that put teachers' hopes for retirement in peril. Schools in at least 25 counties shut down last Friday, the Huffington Post reported, with teachers calling in sick or absent, and continued their walkout this week.
Writing about the red-state teacher revolt in the Washington Post, Paul Waldman explains that "Oklahoma is a particularly pure example of conservative philosophy." Since 1992, "state law mandates a 75 percent supermajority in both houses of the legislature to raise taxes." The rule was in response to a 1990 tax increase that was specifically for school funding. Waldman argues that this "has led them to where they are today, with four-day school weeks, cold buildings and decades-old textbooks."
When teachers bring these concerns to state legislatures, they're met with disdain. "Then [they] hold out empty pockets, saying, well, we can't fund education -- when they deliberately, annually cut taxes," Thomas said. "That's going to make the next year's funding even harder."
Thomas fears a teacher exodus to surrounding, better-paying states is coming. He explained, "Teachers in Arizona can go to any surrounding state and get a significant raise... I believe both Utah and Colorado are about a $10,000 raise. New Mexico, on average, pays their teachers $15,000 more than Arizona teachers are paid."
"We need a billion-dollar reinvestment just to get back where we were 10 years ago," Thomas continued, explaining why teachers are asking for a 20 percent raise. "That's the part that the public struggles with because you almost can't believe a governor or a legislature would let... students and schools face such peril."
Strikes or walkouts in four states and counting might do something to change that.