When Phoenix special education teacher Chelsey Gleason started teaching nine years ago, her salary was $36,000 a year; today it is $37,000.
“I didn’t expect to make a lot of money when I went into teaching,” Gleason said. “But I want to make a living and earn enough to stay in the profession.”
Conditions in her classroom have deteriorated. This year, she has 30 students, all with disabilities, in her transitional educational program. Gleason is responsible for preparing the students, who are 19 or older, to make the transition to vocational schools or independent living. Yet she has no money to purchase textbooks, and her students work on slow, outdated computers that they must share with another large class.
“School board members tell us, ‘This is an opportunity for you to be creative,’” she said.
Gleason borrowed one textbook from a wealthier district where she once worked and uses it to shape her lesson plans.
Gleason’s plight is a microcosm of the grievances that led more than 20,000 Arizona teachers to walk off the job for six days in late April. The strike was the first statewide strike in Arizona history and one of a wave of teacher walkouts that has swept West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado and North Carolina.
Except for Colorado, the walkouts are happening in states where Republican governors and legislatures have made a religion of cutting taxes and shrinking government spending — at a devastating cost to public schools and the teaching profession. These teachers lack strong unions to fight for them in the political arena.
Like many states, Arizona slashed government spending when the 2008 recession hit. But instead of restoring funding when the economy began to recover, the state chose to cut taxes. The combination has been a one-two punch to schools statewide: They have lost $1 billion in funding over the last decade. Arizona spent less than $7,500 per pupil annually in 2015, the last year for which data was available; only Utah and Idaho spent less.
Fed up and with little to lose, teachers formed Arizona Educators United and began protesting under the #RedforEd banner and organizing on social media. They posted pictures on the group’s Facebook page of old textbooks held together with duct tape, leaky ceilings and broken chairs. Teachers chimed in with their classroom stories: a classroom map that showed the Soviet Union still intact, broken toilets and roaches in the overhead lights.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey initially offered a 1 percent salary increase to teachers and $65 million in additional state education funding. Trying to avert a strike, Ducey proposed a 20 percent pay raise over three years, but Arizona teachers at first spurned his offer, voting overwhelmingly to strike. Noah Karvelis, a Phoenix music teacher and founder of Arizona Educators United, said teachers wanted the restoration of education spending to prerecession levels, better salaries for school support staff and a dedicated revenue source for school funding.
Teachers across the state walked off the job on April 26 and protested at the Capitol and marched through downtown Phoenix every day. At the peak of the strike, more than 1,000 schools were closed. Worried that they might lose the public’s support, the teachers returned to work on May 3 after Ducey signed legislation with the teacher pay raise and an additional $406 million in education funding over the next five years.
Karvelis and the other protesters concede they did not get all they had sought. “We attempted to extend the definition of teacher to include support staff, but it was voted down,” Karvelis said. “Now we are going district to district to negotiate pay raises for them.”
To create a stable revenue source for schools, Karvelis is now petitioning for a ballot initiative in November that would increase taxes on the highest earners in the state. “It would affect 1.7 percent of the population and raise $700 million for education,” he said.
Arizona has redirected much school funding toward charter schools and vouchers. The Koch brothers, through their American Legislative Exchange Council, have a strong presence in the state, promoting legislation that pushes privatization, charter expansion and low taxes. Sixteen percent of Arizona students are enrolled in charter schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Charters are taking over our state,” said Summer Schaudt, a Phoenix art teacher.
A coalition of concerned parents and teachers from Save Our Schools Arizona are promoting another ballot initiative in November to roll back the education savings accounts promoted by Ducey that drain funds from the public schools.
It’s been an education for public school educators about how political change happens, even in a red state like Arizona.
Karvelis said having the state American Federation of Teachers on board made a big difference. “We benefited from the AFT’s infrastructure and experience,” he said.
“One of the biggest things we learned is that we have power,” Karvelis said. “When you get together, you have more power and you can change the course of the state.”