After the 2008 recession blew up its budget, Arizona implemented sweeping cuts to education spending. Many teachers accepted this austerity, on the assumption that it would end when the downturn did. But by the time the recovery arrived, Republicans had taken full control of Arizona’s government — and they felt it more important to cut taxes than to restore funding for public education.
As a result, the Grand Canyon State spends 14 percent less per pupil on school funding today than it did a decade ago, making its education system among the most poorly funded in the nation — and its public-school teachers, the least well-paid of any state’s, once one accounts for cost of living.
So, when Arizona teachers saw their peers in West Virginia win a raise by going on strike, they quickly threatened to follow suit. Republican governor Doug Ducey tried to preempt a walkout by offering the teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, last month. But the teachers shot him down. They wanted a plan that included a dedicated revenue source (to ensure the raises would actually happen); a raise for non-instructional school employees; and the restoration of pre-recession levels of overall education spending — Ducey’s blueprint offered none of those things.
On April 26, teachers across the state abandoned their classrooms and launched the “#RedForEd” protests. Thousands of teachers (adorned in red clothing) have protested at the capitol and marched through downtown Phoenix each day since. Finally, on Thursday morning, Ducey ostensibly put an end to the strikes, by signing a new education budget bill that gives (some, but not all) Arizona teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020 — but doesn’t include a sustainable revenue source, raise for non-instructional school staff, or restoration of 2008-level education funding.
“I think they’re pretty frustrated,” Joe Thomas, president of the state’s largest teacher’s union, said of his members’ reaction to the budget in an interview with Phoenix’s 12 News Thursday. “They wanted to see a more robust package … What we do see is a lot of promises by the governor that are not going to come true.”
Still, Thomas suggested that teachers will now “be moving toward the classroom,” having apparently decided that maintaining the strike any longer would jeopardize public support. And keeping Arizona voters on their side is no idle concern for the state’s teachers: Public educators have no legal right to strike in Arizona, and one of the main things preventing local officials from taking advantage of that legal reality — by canceling striking teachers’ contracts and/or revoking their teaching certificates — is the sense that this would be politically unwise.
Under the new budget, teachers will receive a 10 percent raise next year, and then an additional ten percent by 2020 — but that isn’t guaranteed. Instead of directly mandating such raises, the plan allocates education funds to individual school districts, and gives them discretion to hand out raises as they see fit. In some districts, officials won’t receive enough state funding to give all of their teachers 20 percent raises even if they wanted to do.
The budget does increase state spending on education by $200 million more than Ducey initially offered, but that still leaves overall funding far below pre-recession levels. What’s more, even that modest increase is jeopardized by the absence of a sustainable funding source. The budget pays for its new spending on schools and teachers by raiding special funds (including one dedicated to cleanup efforts following leaks from underground gasoline storage tanks), and with an unexpected revenue boost that the state took in during the first quarter of this year, thanks to the strength of its economy. Which is to say: Once the current economic expansion subsides, most of the revenue for new education spending will disappear.
Nonetheless, an underfunded 20 percent raise and a bump in school spending are a lot more than Arizona Republicans were prepared to offer before the state’s teachers first threatened to strike. After taking office in 2015, Ducey insisted that, although Arizona’s classrooms were underfunded, the state’s education system wasn’t — schools were simply misspending the money they already had. Meanwhile, the governor pushed through a radical expansion in school vouchers that will divert funding out of the public system and into private schools — unless voters shoot down the measure in a ballot initiative this fall.
Through labor militancy, Arizona teachers succeeded in forcing Republicans to make investments in public education that they did not want to. But to fully realize their ambitions for their schools and students, the state’s teachers are going to have replace their elected representatives with ones more sympathetic to their cause — and this November, they intend to do just that.