April 26, 2019, came and went without a spectacle at the Capitol.
Granted, that was a Friday and legislators weren’t at work. But it was also the one-year anniversary of the Arizona Red for Ed movement’s grand political statement.
The plaza where Red for Ed demonstrators once marched in a wide, red circle has been mostly empty but for regular visitors and the occasional luncheon on the lawn – the lawn that had nearly every inch occupied by demonstrators this time last year.
April 26, 2018, was a day for the history books as tens of thousands of teachers and support staff walked out of schools and marched from downtown Phoenix to the state Capitol, wearing red and demanding more funding for public education. Many returned for five days after that initial rush, rallying despite temperatures reaching up to 100 degrees.
The movement is still alive today, but it looks very different.
A physical presence at the Capitol morphed into heightened political participation in the 2018 election cycle – and resulted in four more House seats for Democrats.
On May 1 of this year, individual schools and districts reminded supporters they’re still active with demonstrations, like school walk-ins and bridge takeovers.
But the Capitol stayed quiet. A handful of Red for Ed supporters showed up in the House gallery. A gathering purportedly planned for the day never materialized.
While educators have continued wearing red on Wednesdays and organizing events in their communities, the momentum that rocked the state last year hasn’t been harnessed in the same way.
And some people are wondering why they aren’t doing more to revive it.
ONE FOR THE AGES
April 30 was a school night, but that didn’t stop about 140 Red for Ed faithfuls from gathering at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix.
After mingling in the tightly packed bar, they settled into the theater to reminiscence and watch a short documentary film about the movement a year later.
“Red for Ed, One Year Later” highlighted the statewide teacher strike last year, homing in on what has and has not changed in the year since, with emphasis on the latter.
As the lights brightened, Arizona Education Association Vice President Marisol Garcia, Red for Ed leader Rebecca Garelli and biology teacher Katie Nash led a discussion about what is next for the movement.
Garelli told the crowd that literally nothing has changed in her packed classroom since last year. She works with expired materials, outdated textbooks and deteriorating infrastructure.
“What does that tell my students? How does that make them feel?” she said. “I feel devalued, and so does their education. … Nothing has changed.”
The panelists and the audience in general nodded along in agreement, and they wanted to know what comes next.
Garelli focused on community engagement, calling on the moviegoers to keep up school activities and staying engaged with their legislators on the upcoming budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
“We go can small with one school. We can go larger with a district action. Or we can branch out and do things regionally,” she said. “We’re looking at ways for people to plug themselves in, in a way that’s not scary.”
One thing no one called for was another walkout.
Nash, one of the teachers spotlighted in the film, said another walkout at this point in the legislative session would not be effective.
“Most of us are really advocating and gearing up toward a bigger movement if something else comes along. What that looks like, I don’t know,” Nash said. “Maybe that happens next year closer to another election. Time will tell.”
SEQUEL TO BE DETERMINED
The Red for Ed movement found its early steam on social media.
The original organizer and face of the movement in 2018, Noah Karvelis, started the Arizona Educators United Facebook group, connecting thousands of teachers in less than 24 hours. Today, membership stands at more than 46,000.
That led to the creation of “site liaisons” to guide activities at individual schools – and later, to oversee the vote on whether to strike.
And it wasn’t just Arizona.
Teachers in Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia went on strike in 2018. The cross-country call to action fueled Arizonans who wanted to take the fight offline and to the streets.
A vote was held over several days, and ultimately, 78 percent of more than 57,000 ballots cast supported a strike. The rest is history.
Garcia said Arizona had a roadmap then.
The movement did not organize with the intent to strike, she said, but that was what got lawmakers’ attention.
And she said that decision still has an impact today.
“There are more people than ever afraid we’re going to do it. We could do it again,” Garcia said.
Teachers feel they’re in the same place today as they were a year ago, she said. They don’t know what the Legislature has planned, they haven’t seen meaningful change in their classrooms and they feel they’ve been lied to.
“The shock is really setting in that they have done this to me twice. Promised and didn’t deliver,” she said. “You lied to us twice.”
That frustration comes through online.
The Facebook group is still highly active. Members use it to keep each other informed on bills of interest at the Capitol and to plan district activities.
But it’s also a place where supporters have voiced concern and even frustration at what some interpret as a lack of coordination this year.
Cassi Willis, a sixth grade math teacher at Mountain View School, said the online chatter showcases the “conflicted energy” that exists in the movement now.
She said the movement sent a strong message, and teachers felt the state took a step in the right direction for the first time in a long time. But she’s not convinced state leaders are ready to take another positive step, not yet anyway.
And she’s quite certain it won’t happen the same way.
“Last year, we started by doing things that didn’t interfere with school and instruction. … The walkout happened after all of those measures didn’t have the outcome we wanted. This year, we haven’t been as organized. We haven’t done those things,” Willis said.
The walkout was a last resort that no one wanted to take. But at least they delivered warning shots before it came to that, Willis said.
She sees no clear reason to escalate their actions again now, but she said not everyone agrees with her.
“Some teachers saw the power of the movement and they want to continue that momentum. They don’t want to lose that – I totally get that. But there are a lot of teachers who are hesitant because we want to be in the classroom with our kids,” she said.
Willis said that momentum still exists today – it’s just not being channeled in the same direction. And no one seems to agree on how best to accomplish their goals.
“A movement is actions no matter what they look like,” Garelli told the FilmBar gathering on April 30.
The choice is largely in the hands of individuals now.
Garcia said there was no mass effort planned for May 1, despite talk that stemmed from a video recording of one woman telling members to show up at the Capitol carrying red umbrellas.
Other states planned large-scale demonstrations that day, but not Arizona, Garcia said. The decision was left to the individual schools.
There was, however, an action network created online. As of late May 2, the network showed a goal of 200 events across the state on May 1. More than 170 were recorded.
But budget night at the Capitol is coming and Garcia said leaders couldn’t keep their members away from the Legislature when that time comes, even if they wanted to.
They still want to see pay raises for all employees. They want capital funding to fix crumbling buildings. And they want permanent funding solutions for public schools.
The movement woke people up, Garcia said. And while it looks different today, it’s still fighting the fight that began in 2018.
In her eyes – in many eyes – the problem remains the same in 2019.
“We’re patching little holes and not talking about rehauling the way that we fund education,” she said.