While many schoolboards, including Tempe Union and Kyrene, stood in solidarity with striking teachers last spring, the Goldwater Institute wants the state Board of Education to virtually make sure that won’t happen again.
The conservative think tank sent a policy memo with the recommendations to the Arizona State Board of Education just days after its members tabled an item to discuss and possibly discipline teachers who walked off their jobs this spring for better pay.
The institute not only wants the board to still consider disciplinary measures – including dismissal – against teachers who walked out. It also asked the board to adopt regulations that would require local school districts to make a more aggressive effort to keep schools open.
Arizona was one of 10 states in 2017 where teachers got paid the least, according to Education Week, and that fact helped fuel the walkout.
But the Goldwater Institute said districts should not be aiding teachers in what it terms illegal walkouts over pay or any other issue.
“It’s the school board’s responsibility to show leadership and prevent these illegal school closures from happening,” said Goldwater Vice President of Litigation Timothy Sandefur, who penned the June 28 memo.
Sandefur said the board has not responded to his memo. State board staff and board President Lucas Narducci did not return calls and emails asking for comment.
Most board members in Kyrene and Tempe Union did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely went on record a month ago against any move to punish teachers for the six-day walkout, contending they did nothing wrong.
But Tempe Union board member Sandy Lowe wondered if the Goldwater Institute’s recommendations are redundant.
“After scanning a summary of the recommendations made by the Goldwater Institute to the State Board of Education, I believe districts already have the option to implement some of these suggestions in order to keep as many schools open as possible during a walkout such as we experienced,” Lowe said.
“It came down to providing a safe learning environment when a school was not fully staffed. Tempe Union did everything possible to minimize the impact on students and be supportive of our teachers during this time period,” she continued, adding:
Educators have faced the realities of overcrowded classrooms, increased job responsibilities, increased stress especially in the areas of safety and identifying students who may be experiencing crisis in their lives, etc., with basically stagnant salaries. Dedication and love for their students made it very difficult for teachers to walk out, but (it) was done to bring attention to the realities of public education.”
Lowe also said that when it came to the institute’s punitive recommendations, “I would need more time to understand the full impact on public education, especially in term of fairness, effectiveness and overall impact on our students.”
That sentiment was echoed by school board members elsewhere in the East Valley.
“As far as policy is concerned, it has to be researched by attorneys if we can have a policy like that,” said Sheila Rogers, president of the Gilbert Unified School District Governing Board. “Everybody wants a quick fix. This is a much more complex issue.”
But Rogers and a Chandler school board member also criticized the institute’s call for punitive measures in connection with last spring’s walkout. Gov. Doug Ducey already has gone on record against punishing teachers who walked off the job.
Goldwater contends the six-day Red for Ed shutdown of Arizona schools was illegal because it violated students’ state constitutional right to an education and that teachers had no right to violate their contractual obligation.
The strike commenced April 26 and ended with teachers returning to work on May 3 after the governor inked a budget plan that called for a 20 percent pay hike for teachers by 2020.
Goldwater is urging the education board to consider amendments that would allow school districts to more easily hire substitutes in the event of a strike.
It also asked the state board to make clear that teachers and superintendents who do strike would face disciplinary action up to and including having their certificates revoked.
Districts would have to prove they made an all-out attempt to find emergency substitutes, according to Goldwater, which faulted some districts for facilitating and encouraging the recent strike.
Goldwater wants the state education board to require school districts to:
*Adopt policies allowing for the sharing of teachers within districts in order to keep as many schools open as possible during a strike.
*Adopt a policy that prohibits locking out teachers who want to work during a strike
*Report striking teachers and superintendents to the state education board for investigation of unprofessional conduct.
*Close campuses on a school-by-school basis, which would prevent districts from barring employees from working during a strike or from closing entirely when only some of the schools within that district are unable to open.
Goldwater also is asking the board to consider backing amendments to state law that would prevent school districts from closing campuses without first holding an open meeting to take input from parents.
And Goldwater wants the board to ask the county attorney or state attorney general to investigate the weeklong strike for things such as “unlawful use of property and illegal political activity.”
Governing board member Bob Rice of the Chandler Unified School District didn’t look favorably on the memo.
“Generally I am not in favor of those punitive types of things,” he said. “In any case if you treat people well, then there is generally not a problem. I am not interested in being punitive with our teachers.”
He also questioned the need for Goldwater’s policy suggestions.
“I don’t know the last time we had a strike like that,” Rice said. “Tucson had a strike in the ’70s – a teachers strike – so it doesn’t happen very often.
“That’s why changing a bunch of policies for something that happens every 40 years is not an effective way to govern.”
Goldwater’s memo also didn’t sit well with Gilbert Unified board President Rogers, who said implementing the recommendations would be a logistical nightmare.
“First of all, there’s no way on earth we can staff the schools” in the event of a strike, said the retired long-time educator. “There’s not enough subs to begin with.”
Arizona has a teacher shortage with nearly 2,000 vacancies reported in the 2017-18 school year.
Rogers also challenged Goldwater’s push to investigate striking teachers for possible wrongdoing when there are cases of a more egregious nature that are harmful to children.
Rogers served on the Professional Practices Advisory Committee, which recommends to the state Education Board disciplinary actions on a teacher accused of immoral or unprofessional conduct.
“Honestly, when I was on the committee for 15 years we met two days a month – full days – on disciplinary actions against teachers who did things really wrong,” she said, adding:
“I can give you 15 examples, from drugs to inappropriate texting to all kinds of things, and we use to be a year to a year and a half behind because of the need to investigate.”
Having had that experience, she asked how Goldwater’s proposal could be carried out logistically.
“Tell me how it will work in Arizona,” Rogers said. “I don’t know how they can do it. That’s my opinion.”
Sandefur countered Rogers’ assertion the recommendations would be hard to implement.
“It certainly won’t happen without the political will to take the steps necessary to make sure Arizona schools are not illegally closed,” he said.