by Félix Pérez; image by Valerie Thomas @Valerie4AzEd
No one believed Arizona educators when they said they would walk out until state legislators passed a budget. No one believed them when they vowed to rally at the state Capitol in numbers not seen before. No one thought they were serious when they pledged to fight for their students regardless of the politically powerful forces aligned against them.
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Boy, were the cynics and doubters wrong.
Late yesterday morning, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed an education budget that includes more than $400 million, a far cry from the $65.4 million Ducey said he would provide one month ago. This additional funding would most certainly not have been included in the budget had educators not showed up by the tens of thousands at the Capitol to advocate for public education.
But educators’ demand to increase funding by $1.1 billion — to the pre-recession level — was not met, and the amount budgeted falls well short of what Arizona students need. And while educators are proud of making history and are fulfilling their promise to return to their classrooms beginning today, they said their fight continues because “legislators aren’t getting the job done.”
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, in a joint statement, said:
When we started this movement, Arizona educators pledged to keep fighting for the schools their students deserve until the end, and we were true to our word. We will return to our schools, classrooms, and students knowing that we have achieved something truly historic. We should take pride in what we have accomplished, and in the movement that we have created together. . .
The #RedforEd fight continues. And since lawmakers aren’t getting the job done, we will.”
A movement, indeed, fueled by a decade of cuts and broken promises and inspired by recent educator walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Colorado. Arizona educators and their many supporters made history by staging the nation’s largest teacher walkout. Over four days, more than 150,000 educators marched on the streets, rallied and stood for hours in blazing desert heat to demand the governor and legislators provide the schools Arizona student deserve.
At issue are students’ learning conditions. Class sizes are increasing, classrooms are stocked with obsolete resources, and school conditions have deteriorated. Photographs shared by educators on social media provide the evidence of legislative neglect — tattered textbooks that are more than 20 years old, rodent-infested classrooms, broken-down technology, and more.
No other state has cut school funding more than Arizona. Between 2008 and 2015, state lawmakers cut funding per student by 36.6 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Arizona lawmakers budgeted 13.6 percent less on students this year than they did in 2008. Even as the economy has rebounded from last decade’s Great Recession, Arizona lawmakers have opted for more tax cuts, instead of investing in public schools.
Marisol García, an eighth grade social studies teacher and vice president of the Arizona Education Association, was one of the educators at the all-night vigil. In a video recorded at the vigil, she said she was “proud to see educators engaged who are never going to give up on our kids. I’m so proud to have been here with you the past six days and to continue with you as long as it takes to get what’s best for our kids.”
Now that the legislature has come up short, educators are taking matters into their own hands. Thousands of #RedforEd members begin circulating petitions to qualify the Invest in Ed citizens’ initiative for the November ballot. Their goal: collect 225,000 signatures within weeks so voters can increase education funding by nearly $700 million.
Thomas added, “We will continue to fight until the end for our students. The #RedforEd movement created the largest increase in school funding since the recession, but it’s still not enough. This budget does not go far enough to meet our students’ needs. It still falls short of our five demands and there is much more that needs to be done to get to 2008 levels of school funding.
“Our greatest victory is the powerful movement we have created, which we will continue to use on behalf of our students because this movement has always been about fighting for more funding for our students. . . We have built an infrastructure throughout the state and we intend to build upon that network, and use it to get the funding our students and schools need. This movement is not over and we will not stop until we get enough funding to get the schools our students deserve.”
Arizona Educators United organizer and Littleton music teacher Noah Karvelis said, “I’m ready to continue this fight. AEU is ready to continue this fight. AEA is ready to continue this fight. We must continue the course. We won the first battle, but now we must win the war.”