Public school teachers in Arizona voted to go on strike as early as next Thursday, rejecting a plan from the state’s governor to increase their pay by 20 percent over the next five years.
Arizona’s teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, but Gov. Doug Ducey recently proposed a legislative package that would increase teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020 and restore education funding to pre-2008 recession levels. Funding would also be directed to support school resources such as new textbooks, updating technology, modernizing the state’s curriculum and school infrastructure.
“No one wants to see teachers strike,” Ducey, a Republican, said in reaction to last night’s vote. “If schools shut down, our kids are the ones who lose out. We have worked side by side with the education community to develop a sustainable plan to give teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020.”
But Ducey’s plan has hit two stumbling blocks. First, a legislative budget analysis claims it will result in a $265 million deficit, and the Arizona PTA has pulled its support.
Ducey’s office disputes the analysis, noting that the funding comes from revenue increases. A letter from Matt Gress, director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Budget said the Finance Advisory Committee announced that “revenues through March were $262 million above forecast and included significant upward revisions in ongoing revenues throughout the 4-year budget window.” A state official familiar with the plan called it “fiscally responsible” and asked, “Why would we stock pile money at the state Capitol instead of getting it to the people who deserve it more –our teachers?”
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, has said that even with a 20 percent raise, the average teacher salary in the state would still fall below the national average. He also said that teachers in next-door neighbor New Mexico earn, on average, $15,000 a year more than their colleagues in Arizona. In addition to low pay, Arizona’s teachers also have some of the highest turnover rates in the nation.
About 78 percent of the association’s 57,000 members voted to strike.
“Top five turnout rate in the nation, top five class size, and dead last in salaries,” Thomas said in a previous interview with InsideSources. “That is the perfect formula for frustrating teachers. They don’t feel like they’re set up for success with students.”
While many have voiced support for increasing teacher pay and improving their working conditions, less clear is whether the teachers can legally strike. The education association posted guidance for teachers that referenced a 1971 state Attorney General opinion that “public school teachers may not strike.” The association’s guidance said there may be strength in numbers.
“As a practical matter, the more school employees who take part in a walkout at a given site and statewide, the less likely it is that we’ll see dismissals and other adverse actions taken against school employees,” the document reads. “This is especially true for teachers in light of the current shortage of certified teachers in Arizona. School districts may try to make use of third-party substitute teacher referral services … School districts could also try to resort to filing court actions in order to stop any strike.”
A report from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association provided to InsideSources shows that teacher vacancies are high. As of December, 22.9 percent of teacher positions remain vacant and that 39.2 percent of teacher positions were filled by individuals who do not meet standard teacher requirements. The survey looked at 172 school districts and charter schools, and it found more than 8,500 teacher positions still needed to be filled for the 2017-18 school year.
There are 1,282 vacancies that were filled by persons who are not properly certified, according to the survey.
“The women and men who work so hard to educate our children at our neighborhood public schools have earned a meaningful and sustainable pay increase that’s based on a real revenue source, not smoke and mirrors,” said Arizona House Democratic Leader Rebecca Rios in a statement.
So far, reactions to the pending strike from school administrators have varied by districts. Local news reports indicate that the state’s largest district – Mesa Public Schools in suburban Phoenix – would close and hourly staffers would not receive pay. To the west of Phoenix, officials in Dysart School District will try to keep schools open, but that is dependent on the number of staff showing up.
Arizona’s teachers are following a course of action that has been successful recently in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky where educator protests over wages and education funding have been aimed at Republican governors and state legislatures. West Virginia’s teachers secured a 5 percent pay hike for themselves and all state employees.