In the New Yorker, E. Tammy Kim summarizes the meaning of the mass walkout by teachers last week in Arizona:
“In Arizona and other states where teachers have recently gone on strike, pay is a central issue: the average American teacher earns five percent less than he did in 2009. (In Arizona, the average teacher salary fell from fifty-three thousand to forty-seven thousand dollars in that time.) But the protests are about more than salaries. In recent years, educators have been blamed by politicians and parents for an array of social problems, from bankrupt municipal pensions to low graduation rates in poor neighborhoods. Standardized testing has constrained teacher autonomy and creativity, and charter and private schools have competed more aggressively for government funds… Per-student spending has fallen fourteen percent in the past decade, and some two thousand classrooms have no permanent instructors. Between 2010 and 2015, Arizona’s rate of teacher turnover was twenty-three percent in traditional public schools and thirty-three percent in charters….” And last week it was exposed that school districts in Arizona have been importing teachers from the Philippines on J-1 temporary guest worker visas.
In Arizona the strike went on days after it was scheduled to conclude because, while Governor Doug Ducey had promised teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, it became clear his promise had been hollow. A Republican supermajority in both houses of the legislature blocked Ducey’s promise when it came time, late in the week, to pass a budget. The Huffington Post‘s labor writer, Dave Jamieson reports: “The budget bill gives teachers a 9 percent pay raise next year, which, combined with a 1 percent raise already given, gets them halfway to the 20 percent hike they have called for. Ducey has promised that the second installment will come by 2020, though that is not guaranteed by the package he signed. The plan steers bulk money to districts and gives them the discretion to dole out the raises as they see fit, meaning not all teachers will receive the same percentage pay bump. An analysis done by the Arizona Republic found that a minority of districts under the plan will not receive enough money to give all their teachers 20 percent raises. The bill also hikes state spending on schools by $200 million per year more than Ducey originally proposed at the start of the year. Still, it comes up well short of the walkout organizers’ demand that funding be restored to 2008 levels, adjusted for inflation.” There is not enough to make classes smaller, add enrichments, or relieve outrageous case loads for counselors.
And the way Arizona legislators raised enough funds in the budget bill to pay for investing in the public schools reflects the anti-tax bias of Arizona’s legislative majority. The NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein explains, “In Arizona, as in Oklahoma, legislators refused requests to raise income taxes on the wealthy, and instead turned to a hodgepodge of revenue sources that are likely to hit a wide range of voters… Mr. Ducey, a first-term Republican facing re-election, ran for governor promising never to raise taxes, and has said his budget keeps that commitment. In addition to an $18 car registration fee, a plan to shift the costs of several school desegregation plans to local property taxpayers from state government is expected to raise $18 million, in part by increasing property taxes in some low-income school districts.”
The attitude of many legislators is reflected in amendments offered as part of the budget bill. For Think Progress, Casey Quinlan reports: “Republicans offered amendments in response to the walkouts, which included an amendment from Rep. Kelly Townsend, which would have prohibited teachers in public schools from talking about or showing their political views during classroom time, and fined those who did. She also proposed an amendment to make it illegal to close schools with the exception of natural disasters and other dangers…. Both amendments failed.”
While walkouts by school teachers this spring have not always yielded the level of victory in terms of salary increases and investments like enough money to lower ballooning class sizes, an analysis for The American Prospect concludes that teachers have been able to challenge the anti-tax, accountability-driven rhetoric of the past two decades: “Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this latest round of teacher labor power is that their demands are broad and inclusive. Even though the teachers who have gone on strike or are considering it are paid well below the average and have terrible benefits, they have put the focus of their demands on their students’ needs, on improving classroom quality and increasing classroom resources. In doing so they made clear that winning a raise for themselves would be insufficient—they have demanded a significant investment in children as well as a win on the ‘bread and butter’ issues.”
This spring, school teachers walking out across a number of states have successfully highlighted a widespread, catastrophic shortage of financial inputs and challenged our society’s myopic focus on test-score outcomes