Teachers in Arizona Sound the Alarm That Republicans Have Broken the State's School System

An old proverb says that there is a difference between giving up and knowing when you’ve had enough. Now, tens of thousands of public school teachers in Arizona are saying they've had enough — which is why many are participating in a statewide walkout. Over 100 school districts in the Grand Canyon State will close for the walkout today; meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 public school teachers are expected to march to the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix at noon. Their frustration stems from years of budget cuts, which have resulted in overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated desks, frayed textbooks and wages so low that schools are unable to retain teachers.

The so-called strike, which is officially being referred to as a walkout by teachers and the union, is being spearheaded by the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona Educators United (AEU), who coined the term and hashtag #RedforEd to refer to the larger organized movement in Arizona that is comprised of teachers, support staff, parents, students and allies. ("Red," in this case, refers to wearing red in solidarity with teachers.) Arizona teachers voted on April 19 to walk out, following weeks of #RedforEd "walk-ins" — demonstrations before school to garner support without disrupting the teaching day.

Previously, Arizona's Republican Governor Doug Ducey attempted to assuage aggrieved teachers with a half-hearted budget proposal to give teachers a "net pay increase" of 20 percent by 2020, though teachers say that after years of cuts and lack of raises, such a proposal barely makes a dent in the problem. Ducey's move didn’t include educational professionals like counselors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, which is one reason of many why it likely didn’t prevent today’s walk-out.

"We don’t know how long it will go,” Noah Karvelis, one of the lead organizers of #RedForEd, told Salon. “It will go on until we see movement on the demands.”

Some schools districts have already announced closings for Friday as well as Thursday.

Karvelis, who teaches kindergarten through 5th grade music classes in Littleton Elementary School District in the west suburbs of Phoenix, said the demands fall under two umbrellas: investing in the schools and kids, and investing in teachers and educators. Karvelis, who has been teaching for two years, was immediately worried by the high turnover he observed when he first started teaching in Arizona.

“Right when I first got here one of the things I noticed is that if you’re a second or third-year teacher, you are a veteran in Arizona,” Karvelis told Salon. “There’s a big teacher turnover. I have seen a lot of teachers leave the profession, veteran teachers, because they can’t continue to teach in Arizona.” Such turnover hurts students, too, as studies show that experienced teachers tend to be better educators.

Yet many experienced teachers said the decline in basic resources have led them to participate in the walkout.

“It’s not just about the salaries,” Chris Yetman, who has taught high school math for 30 years in the Tucson-area Amphitheater Unified School District, told Salon. “My [classroom] is seldom clean because we can’t find custodians to accept the wages.”

Because of the lack of custodial staff, Yetman's students will do what they call a “trash and dash,” which is when Yetman enlists students to help sweep and clean, as the custodians only have time and resources to empty each room's garbage cans before moving on.

“The desks in my room are in a sad state of disrepair,” he said. “The textbooks are 18 years old; they fall apart. Many are held together with lots of glue and bubblegum.”

"Our buildings are falling apart"

Mamie Spillane has been teaching for over 20 years in Amphitheater Unified School District. Her official job title is "Instructional Coach"; even though she’s not technically a classroom teacher, she’s on a teacher contract. Spillane says she is participating in the walk-out partly because of financial woes, but mostly for the students.

“I have seen a decline in the amount of money we have for things like air conditioners that are breaking, sewage problems and classroom supplies,” Spillane told Salon. “We have a terrible teacher retention problem. Our buildings are falling apart.”

In addition to not being able to retain teachers, fewer are reportedly joining the field — which is both a result of Arizona’s public school conditions, and the passing of Senate Bill 1042, which allows some to bypass Arizona’s regular requirements to obtain standard teaching certificates. Senate Bill 1042 was another one of Gov. Ducey’s ideas to fix the state’s teacher shortage by letting uncertified teachers teach. However, some of the teachers Salon spoke with cited bringing uncertified teachers into the classroom as more of a disruption than a help.

“That is a nonsensical solution,” Yetman said of the Senate Bill. “If you can’t find a doctor, you don’t take someone who wants to become one.”

Elethia Yetman, Chris Yetman's spouse, who teaches Spanish at the same school, is stressed about the timing of the walkout.

"It's a very stressful time . . . we have a lot of things to do next week," she said. "[With only] four weeks left at school, it's a hard time" for the walkout to happen, Yetman said.

Ultimately, Elethia Yetman, who has been a teacher for 27 years, said she feels frustrated with the state government. 

"I think they have been stealing from education funds for a long time and sort of patting us on the head," she said.

Indeed, public investment in K-12 schools has declined over the last decade, some of which endured the biggest impact after The Great Recession of 2008. According to a 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 12 states have cut their per-student budget by 7 percent or more, including Arizona and Oklahoma. Nearly $1 billion has been cut from Arizona's public education spending since 2008. As Alternet's Ilana Novick previously wrote, the purpose of Arizona's education spending cuts were to pay for corporate tax cuts.

Indeed, Ducey's legislation underscores a bigger ideological war on the place public education holds in America. Gov. Ducey also signed legislation in early April that would provide a limited number of public school students with vouchers to get state money to attend private schools. Sinisterly, cutting public education spending has the dual role of making private education look more attractive, perhaps the intended ideological effect for Ducey and his free market fundamentalist acolytes.

The perfect storm

The teachers in Arizona now join a national movement of tired teachers who aren’t only fighting for their jobs and students but for a right to quality public education in America. Previous strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky led to significant wins for teachers of those states.

As we saw in other states, dwindling public funds, decrepit buildings and more demands on teachers and support staff created the perfect storm for Arizona teachers, whose median salary in Arizona is in the mid- to high-$40,000 range. Notably, while salaries vary slightly depending on district, a salary comparison to other states illustrates the scope of the problem: in Stockton, California, which has a comparable cost of living to Phoenix and Tucson, a credentialed teacher with a bachelor's degree has a starting salary of $50,115. At Amphitheater Unified School District in the Tucson metro region, the same teacher would earn a mere $34,333 starting salary.

Incredibly, the Tucson teacher wouldn't make the salary that the Stockton teacher starts at until they'd been teaching for at least 19 years.

Elethia Yetman says she works part-time at the Kohl's department store to make ends meet, which she started doing in August of last year. Thus, on Fridays, Yetman works from 6AM to 10 or 11PM — teaching, followed by a shift at the store. "I have started doing that because we have an older child who has medical expenses," she told Salon. "We have decent insurance, but it doesn't cover everything."

Bill Mark, who has been a teacher for 26 years, says his kindergarten classes have changed drastically as the state reduced their support for public education.

“The strike is new to me and it’s not something I am looking forward to, but we are at that point I guess,” he told Salon. “There has been an increase in expectation and a decrease in support and that has been really difficult."

Mark, who teaches in Tucson Unified School District, said the dwindling state support has hurt his kindergarteners and made his work much more difficult.

“Over the time I’ve been a teacher it has become so much more demanding,” he said. “I don’t have a P.E. teacher, there’s no art teacher. We had to vote if we wanted a counselor or a librarian, [and] we voted for a counselor.”

Mark said there is limited recess time for his kindergarteners, no nap time and most alarming, more testing — which he says is somewhat a result of Arizona’s Move on When Reading policy, which increased pressure on kindergarten teachers to improve their students’ reading skills to pass a specific reading test in the third grade.

Some Arizona politicians have criticized the walkout. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas recently called it illegal.

"A walkout is a nice term for it. It is a strike, plain and simple," Douglas told 3TV/CBS5. "And in Arizona, it is not legal for teachers to strike."

Karvelis told Salon it was “disappointing” to hear those comments from her.

“Diane Douglas shouldn’t be discouraging people from helping their kids,” he said.

Yet these frustrated teachers, many of whom are deeply conflicted about the prospect of a walkout, see few other options. Jenny Een, who has been teaching for 25 years in Amphitheater Unified School District, is participating in the walkout but said it was a hard decision to make. She told Salon she hoped officials could reach a resolution through a different course of action; despite her despair, she will be participating.

“It’s impossible for them to fix this in a short period of time” she told Salon. “I don’t want my own daughter, and my own students to have to stress out about school being extended — but I also don’t want another ten years to go by with what we have going on right now.”


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