The strike announced by Arizona teachers last week formally began today with no clear signs of any resolution of their dispute with Republican lawmakers in sight. And teacher unrest has spread to Colorado, where an estimated 10,000 teachers are using personal leave today and tomorrow to go to the state capitol to lobby for better pay and restoration of education funding cuts, leading to widespread school closings.
Both sides in the Arizona dispute appear to be hunkering down for the long haul, as the Arizona Daily Star reports:
Leaders of Arizona Educators United, the grass-roots group pushing for more education funding, have been noncommittal about how long the strike will go on and what realistic solution could bring it to a close, saying those decisions are going to have to come from the teachers themselves and that the organization is taking it day by day.
Gov. Doug Ducey has ignored the group’s demands to meet with him. Lawmakers have shown no real effort to approve the more than $1 billion in new revenue educators are demanding to bring education funding back to pre-recession levels.
Ducey, as it happens, doesn’t really have his own party’s legislators in line to support his earlier offer of a 20 percent teacher pay raise phased in over the next few years, which was deemed unacceptable by teachers because it was unfunded, did not address broader education spending, and did not include non-classroom school employees. So it looks like a battle for public opinion will play out for a while.
Colorado’s teacher action is not, the Colorado Education Association (the state’s NEA affiliate union) makes clear, any sort of formal strike; under the state’s decentralized teacher employment system, a strike could lead to serious legal consequences for those deemed to be in violation of their contracts.
But that could change with provocations from hostile Republican legislators, two of whom have introduced legislation imposing sanctions and even jail time for teachers who strike or try to organize a strike.
The political environment in Colorado is fundamentally different from those in the previous states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona — with major teacher protests and strikes this year. Unlike those states, Colorado has a Democratic governor, and Democrats also control the lower chamber of the state legislature. But like those states, Colorado has underfunded education in recent years, and teacher pay has lagged behind the national average. Democrats may be in a position to broker a deal between teachers and Republicans, but it’s a tricky situation, particularly given lame-duck governor John Hickenlooper’s efforts to deal with a solvency problem in the state’s teacher retirement fund in ways that are making teachers nervous.
Another complication is created by Colorado’s infamous TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) constitutional provision, which requires that state revenue surpluses be rebated to taxpayers. That makes it extremely difficult for even the friendliest-to-education state government to play fiscal catch-up and restore past cuts. Giving Colorado teachers what they want could well require a ballot initiative to get around TABOR.
But developments in Colorado do signal that a backlash against erosion of teacher pay and education funding is going to be a nationwide issue in state elections this fall. And that could represent a serious threat to GOP hegemony in the states after the party’s many years of efforts to cut taxes and shrink the public sector.