Senate President Steve Yarbrough promised on April 25 that “while schools close, the Senate remains open.”
But as more than 40,000 teachers and their supporters marched from downtown Phoenix to the Arizona Capitol the next morning, the state Senate adjourned for the week and rank-and-file members left without a vote on a budget that could boost teacher pay.
Yarbrough, a Chandler Republican, said key players in budget negotiations would remain at the Capitol through the weekend to hash out a way to fulfill Gov. Doug Ducey’s promise to raise teacher salaries by 20 percent by 2020. The House kept its floor open well into the afternoon, hoping to have an opportunity to announce a deal to boost teacher pay. But no deal was struck, and the House adjourned shortly before 4 p.m.
But those conversations won’t include leaders of Arizona Educators United, the organizers behind the “Red for Ed” movement and a teacher strike that closed more than 1,000 public schools across the state, according to The Arizona Republic.
The ball is in the Legislature’s court, said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. The teachers union has asked Ducey to meet with educators on strike – such a meeting could help lawmakers find a solution that could send students and teachers alike back to class, he said.
If no deal is struck, the strike will continue, Thomas said. Teachers’ enthusiasm isn’t waning as thousands of supporters participated in teacher “walk-ins,” and now they’re participating in the strike, he said.
“I believe that everyone understands that this fight is the right one for our students,” Thomas said. “They’ve stood with us up until now, and I do believe they will stand with us into next week as long as we can to show them that this fight remains about students.”
By going home for the weekend without a budget, Republican lawmakers are testing the will of the teachers on strike. They’ve portrayed themselves as diligent workers while teachers abandon their duties to protest.
“I’ve described the strike as unlawful, as dishonorable, and as a violation of the social contract as well as their real contracts,” Yarbrough said. “So that’s how I see the strike. On the other hand, we are fully committed to the most substantial possible teacher pay increase that we can make. I don’t know how you jibe those two things.”
Republican lawmakers cast the strike as an inconvenience amidst budget negotiations that essentially started from scratch after Ducey pitched his proposal to boost teacher pay two weeks ago.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said the strike was “an incredible show of bad faith while we are working diligently to rearrange priorities within the state budget. To leave the classroom, and put parents and children in the middle of a budget reorganization is quite the political statement. I am saddened to see professionals do this.”
The teacher strike has a different vibe as a political protest compared to a recent grassroots education effort put forth by Save Our Schools Arizona, said Republican political consultant Chuck Coughlin. SOS Arizona collected signatures last summer to refer a controversial law expanding access to school vouchers to the ballot in November.
That was an admittedly “left-of-center” movement, Coughlin said, but still decidedly nonpartisan. The “Red for Ed” movement, led by Arizona Educators United, is working with the state’s teachers union, and opened itself to criticism with the endorsement of David Garcia, a Democrat who’s running for governor against Ducey.
There is legitimacy to the governor’s point that this has become politically coordinated, Coughlin said – the higher the degree of perceived political coordination, the harder it will be to garner support from sympathetic Republicans. And they’ll need sympathetic Republicans, be it in the Legislature or at the ballot in November, to get through a plan that teachers support.
That starts with the movement’s relationship with Ducey.
“As much as portions of the movement dislike him, he is still the governor,” Coughlin said. “You have to figure out how to work with him. Is it best to keep poking him in the eye, or is it best to try to cut a deal?”
Ducey spent most of his April 26 morning on a media blitz begging for public support for his proposal, and urging the public to call their legislators and demand they pass a budget. On each appearance on the airwaves and on TV news, the governor repeated his message: The best thing lawmakers can do right now is to pass a state budget that includes the pay raises, he said.
Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, said the governor met with 10 educators that afternoon who were protesting at the Capitol.
“I’ve been listening, and now is the time for action,” Ducey said on KTAR. “Call your legislators.”
Sean Murphy, a 6th-grade special education teacher at Harris Elementary School in Gilbert, said teachers needed to come on strong because, despite the governor’s claims, Ducey hasn’t been listening.
“We really did not want to disrupt anything for our students,” Murphy said. “But at some point, the governor has shown that he was not willing to work with us.”
Democratic lobbyist Barry Dill said a continued strike would keep the pressure on the Legislature as long as a budget eludes lawmakers. The strike is an important political maneuver to show how dedicated teachers are to their cause, he said, and despite claims by Ducey and others that GOP leaders have “delivered” what teachers are asking for, there’s little chance the protest will backfire.
There may come a point that public opinion of the strike will sour, he said.
“I think they have to be very careful of overkill in the public eye, however,” Dill said. “They can’t come on too strong considering they have a 20 percent pay raise on the table.”
That’s Ducey’s hope: To pass a budget and cause public opinion to turn against the strike.
“It won’t make sense to parents and kids if there’s still a teacher strike after this budget with raises happens,” Ducey said in a radio interview April 26.
Yarbrough and other legislative leaders insist they’re dead set on providing teachers the raise Ducey has proposed.
But as long as a divide remains between the legislative and executive branches on how to finance that proposal — Ducey wants $240 million to bump teacher pay by 9 percent this fall, and he’ll need $580 million to boost salaries by 19 percent come the 2020-21 school year — teachers have the upper hand.
The community is siding with teachers, said Thomas, the union president. And teachers are sick of the Legislature’s failure to boost funding for schools in ways that don’t simply make up for past mistakes or settle lawsuits.
“I think that people have been complacent, and I think that our Legislature has taken advantage of that,” Murphy said. “And people are fed up with it. It’s time for us to put our foot down and take a stand for what we think is right.”