The protests by Arizona elementary and high school teachers over their pay and the refusal by the governor and State Legislature to do much about it was to come to Ahwatukee today, April 11, in the form of “walk-ins” and a mass rally.
But those rallies may become a prelude to a walkout after Gov. Doug Ducey issued a statement saying he won't meet with the leaders of two teacher groups to talk about salaries and related issues.
The governor's statement comes less than a week after a request by Noah Karvelis of Arizona Educators United and Joe Thomas of the Arizona Education Association "to begin a negotiation process to resolve the #RedForEd demands.''
That includes not just the 20 percent salary increase to compete with neighboring states but also restoring education levels to where they were a decade ago.
Arizona Educators United is working with its member teachers to set a date for walkout to get the attention of Ducey and legislators and show they are serious.
Ducey, in essence, has written off both groups as irrelevant to his own education funding plans.
"We're meeting with the decision makers,'' the governor said, meaning school superintendents and other officials. "And we're going to continue to meet with the decision makers.''
Karvelis told Capitol Media Services the decision is disappointing -- but not entirely a surprise.
"We feared that,'' he said.
"We hoped that wasn't true,'' Karvelis continued. "We thought maybe he would come to the table on this. But he's continuing to ignore us.''
Meanwhile, Ducey is sticking with his plan to give teachers a 1 percent pay hike this coming year on top of a 1 percent increase for the current school year.
Ducey's position could have implications -- and soon.
Karvelis said Tuesday his newly formed group is "about to hit the numbers we are looking for'' in terms of job actions. That includes both walk-ins where teachers remain outside until the start of the day and all enter at once to show solidarity, as well as actual walk-outs where they simply do not show up.
"We will be taking escalated action and plan to set a date shortly if we do not see any response from him,'' Karvelis said.
For today, teachers – and some administrators and parents – were to gather outside Ahwatukee schools and march to their campuses before classes begin. Kyrene teachers were also planning to gather for a rally after class outside the district’s central office in Tempe.
The protests mark a slow but steady increase in public expressions of dissatisfaction among teachers over salaries that rank the second-lowest for teachers in the nation. They come in the wake of strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma in recent weeks over pay and related compensation issues – actions that could still occur in Arizona in the final weeks of the 2017-18 school year.
The advocacy group Expect More Arizona recently reported that elementary teacher pay in Arizona rose nearly 5 percent from 2016 to 2017, but the increase bumps the state just one position in the national rankings – from 50th to 49th.
“Arizona moved ahead of Oklahoma, for now, but remains well behind its neighboring states,” the group said in a release.
The data – analyzed and adjusted for cost of living by researchers at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy – shows that elementary teachers’ average annual salary last year was $44,490 – up from $42,474 the previous year. However, the 2017 average was well below the national average of $57, 160.
“While we have a long way to go to close the gap to the national median, we should celebrate every increase that moves us toward our goal,” said Christine M. Thompson, president & CEO of Expect More Arizona. “Arizona’s educators work hard and they deserve our support and respect. We need to look at all of the variables that impact teacher recruitment and retention – from teacher pay to working conditions.”
Part of the #RedforEd movement, the walk-ins across Ahwatukee and Arizona schools represent an uptick in public expressions by teachers of their dissatisfaction. They also follow rallies at the State Capitol over the last month that drew thousands of teachers in quiet protest.
Lara Bruner, the Arizona Educators United liaison for Desert Vista High School, said teachers – and likely some parents and administrators – were to gather in a small park near the Mormon chapel on Frye Road and 29th Way around 7:20 a.m., then proceed to the school courtyard.
Mountain Pointe High teacher Erica Shelton said teachers and staff will be joined by Tempe Union Superintendent Kenneth Baca as the walk along Knox Road to a 7:15 a.m. rally in front of the school,
“There is a public Facebook event with this information posted, and all members of the community are invited, as education affects every single one of us,” she said. “We are continuing to reach out to parents to attend, as we value their support.”
Kyrene Education Association leader Sharon Johnson, who teaches at Lagos Dual Language Academy in Ahwatukee, said that the Arizona Education Association and her group “are fully invested in the #REDforED that is sweeping Arizona.”
“The movement builds solidarity and respect for our profession by fighting for competitive salaries and state funding for our schools through collective action,” she said.
Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely also issued an email to parents, noting the “grassroots effort that focuses on increasing education funding is gaining national attention.”
“As a district, we appreciate the Kyrene community embracing the #RedforEd movement, working together to increase awareness regarding financial issues related to public education in Arizona.”
She told parents that teachers and staff were planning “peaceful walk-ins that are professional and non-disruptive of the instructional day.”
Citing the walk-ins and the rally, Vesely added, “In another example of our teacher and staff commitment to your children, these activities are scheduled before and after the school day so that they do not disrupt instruction nor the operation of our schools.
“No district resources are being used in conjunction with these activities. The goal is to demonstrate our commitment to students while showing a united message in support of our teachers and staff,” she told parents.
Vesely also praised the Kyrene Governing Board for its “effort to direct as much of our resources into our classrooms as possible, within the confines of limited state funding.”
That state funding is the target of teachers’ growing ire – fueled by Republicans in the state capitol who not only are rejecting their demand for a 20 percent pay hike but also continuing to cut taxes and reduce the chances the state will find additional revenue to meet their demand.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Doug Ducey said he intends to continue propose further cuts in state taxes even as teachers say without substantially more money they may have no choice but to strike.
Speaking to reporters a day after a rally brought more than 2,000 teachers and supporters to the Capitol, the governor said he's doing the best he can.
"We're definitely trending in the right direction,'' he said. "I've got a sense of urgency on this.''
Ducey said that the state has increased funding for salaries by about 9 percent since he took office in 2015.
But less than half of that is for actual raises, with the balance being for the additional teachers that had to be hired because of student growth.
Ducey's claims about the new money in K-12 education also include funds that came from voter approval in 2016 of Proposition 123.
But that did not constitute new dollars but instead funds to reimburse schools for what they did not get in prior years when lawmakers ignored a voter mandate to adjust state aid to schools annually to account for inflation. Most of those dollars actually came from a trust account that already belonged to schools in the first place.
What that leaves is the 1 percent increase that lawmakers gave teachers for the current school year – more than the 0.4 percent that Ducey had actually sought – and the governor's promise of an additional 1 percent hike for the coming school year.
Ducey disputed figures from the Morrison Institute that put salaries for elementary school teachers dead last when considering the cost of living, with high school teachers at No. 49. Instead, he says Arizona is just 43rd in the nation.
"I'm not bragging on 43rd,'' the governor said. "I'm just saying we're not last.''
But the governor is not backing away from his pledge not only to never increase taxes but also in refusing to reverse any of the hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax cuts that have kicked in since he took office. Each $100 million that was lost would translate to a 3 percent pay hike for teachers.
Perhaps more galling to teachers is Ducey's insistence that lawmakers approve yet another tax cut this year, albeit a much smaller one that eventually would reduce state revenues by another $15 million a year.
Ducey said he does not see tax cuts as antithetical to higher teacher pay. He said the state's economy has grown since he took office, adding 160,000 new jobs.
Per-student state aid is up 5 percent in the same period. But it still remains more than 4 percent below where it was a decade ago.
The governor's comments, coming on the heels of that rally, discouraged Arizona Educators United organizer Noah Karvelis.
"He's going to continue to ignore and neglect us,'' he said. And Karvelis isn't buying Ducey's argument that the state can improve its economy by continuing to shave off sources of revenue.
"Every single one of those tax cuts has come with the promise it's going to inject capital and dollars into our economy,'' he said.
"That hasn't happened,'' Karvelis continued. "That's a lie.''
Nor does he believe that 20 percent is unrealistic, pointing out it would not even bring the average salary for Arizona teachers up to the national median.
"It's ridiculous he won't even consider it,'' Karvelis said.
Part of what is working against the teachers is the sheer size of their ask.
A 20 percent pay hike has a price tag approaching $680 million, which would require more than a 10 percent increase in the approximately $5.4 billion in state dollars now going into public schools.
Republican legislative leaders have said that while they think teachers deserve more, they just don't have that kind of cash – and will not have since, like Ducey, they're unwilling to consider tax hikes or reversing some of those corporate tax cuts.
A coalition of current and former business officials have said the current 0.6-cent sales tax for education – which lawmakers just extended until 2041 – should be raised a full penny. That would raise more than $1 billion a year, far more than enough to get teacher pay here up to the national median.
Karvelis conceded such a move would likely require gathering the signatures to put the issue to the ballot. And he said that remains an option, even for this year, though it would require supporters to gather more than 150,000 signatures on petitions by July 5.
-Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.