National News

Arizona Teachers End Walkout as Governor Signs Bill Approving Raises

Posted May 3, 2018 5:39 p.m. EDT

A week into a statewide teacher walkout in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a budget bill on Thursday that he said would provide teachers with the 20 percent raises they had demanded, in addition to new funds for classrooms.

While the organizers of the walkout said the bill might not produce as much as the governor promised, they announced an end to their labor action, which had kept hundreds of thousands of children out of school.

Arizona is the fourth state this year, after West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, where protesting teachers left classrooms and won concessions from conservative lawmakers — though the agreements have often fallen short of initial demands. In some of the states it has proved easier for Republicans to support pay raises for educators than to provide the large annual funding increases for classrooms that teachers and many parents are asking for.

At least one additional state, North Carolina, is expecting a widespread teacher walkout in the coming weeks.

In Arizona, as in Oklahoma, legislators refused protesters’ 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. The funding increase in Arizona will come in part from a new vehicle registration fee and a change in the way some school desegregation efforts are paid for. Lawmakers in Oklahoma pushed through taxes on tobacco, motor fuels, gambling and online sales, in addition to a higher production tax on oil and gas.

Noah Karvelis, a music teacher in Tolleson, Arizona, who helped launch the statewide walkout, said that while gains from the action were “significant,” they were not enough. “I definitely see this as a national movement,” he said. “It’s teachers standing up and fighting back.”

Leaders of the teachers’ walkout movement, which calls itself #RedforEd, said they would be shifting their focus to support a ballot initiative to raise income taxes on individuals with income over $250,000 and couples with income over $500,000.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said that despite Ducey's claim of a 20 percent teacher raise, the union’s calculations showed the new budget guaranteed funding for less than a 10 percent raise. The bill restores only about a quarter of $1.1 billion in annual education cuts since the last recession, Thomas said, and does not guarantee raises for school support staff.

Like many of the other states rocked by teacher walkouts, Arizona has pursued decades of tax and spending cuts that educators say have devastated schools and made it difficult for teachers to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. In 2015, the last year for which census data was available, the state’s per-pupil funding was the third-lowest in the nation, behind only Utah and Idaho.

Ducey, a first-term Republican facing re-election, ran for governor promising never to raise taxes, and has said his budget keeps that commitment. An $18 car registration fee and a plan to shift the costs of several school desegregation plans to local property taxpayers from state government are expected to raise $18 million, in part by increasing property taxes in some low-income school districts.

Some districts never closed down for the walkouts. Those that did reopened their schools on Thursday, or planned to open Friday or Monday. Many are still determining how they will make up missed instructional time. Some may extend the school year or turn half-days into full days.

Matthew Simon, director of education policy for the Goldwater Institute, an influential libertarian think tank in Phoenix, said his organization considered the teacher walkout unlawful, and generally opposes increasing vehicle registration and other government fees.

He also disputed the idea that more money would improve education in Arizona, pointing to the state’s rising scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test.

The new bill will lead to “hundreds of millions of new dollars put into K-12 education, and the teachers and community still have to hold their locally elected governing boards accountable” for how it is spent, Simon said. He suggested districts could save money by shutting down underenrolled schools.

The Arizona Center for Economic Progress is among the groups supporting the ballot referendum to raise income taxes to secure more schools funding. David Lujan, the group’s director and a former Democratic state legislator, said, “I’ve been around the state Capitol for a couple of decades now. I have never seen the level of grass-roots advocacy that we see this year.”

He added, “I think the education funding crisis will be the No. 1 story in Arizona elections in 2018.”