Teachers and their supporters stage a walk-in at San Tan Charter School in Gilbert on April 11, 2018, demanding more funding for schools. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
(Photo: Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star)
Thousands of Arizona teachers, students and parents rallied outside their schools shortly after sunrise Wednesday in an effort to boost support for their growing #RedForEd movement demanding higher wages and more school funding.
The walk-ins were community affairs, drawing support and attention from each school’s own kids, parents and neighbors. Passers-by honked as they drove by the seas of people wearing red and waving signs outside schools.
Arizona Educators United, the grassroots group behind #RedForEd that planned the walk-ins, said walk-ins occurred in 130 school districts and 1,112 schools on Wednesday.
Participating schools included district and charter, urban and rural, and those in neighborhoods that strongly lean both liberal and conservative.
‘No one’s listening’
Teachers at Madison Traditional Academy in central Phoenix met dozens of supporters on the street as early as 6:45 a.m. with signs, pom poms and snacks.
"This is the most critical issue facing Arizona," Kathy Anderson said, standing near the school with her young granddaughter.
Arizona teachers are demanding a 20 percent pay raise and more than $1 billion in restored money for students.
Arizona ranks near the bottom for teacher pay nationally. According to an analysis by the Arizona School Boards Association, the median teacher pay in 2018 is $46,949. A 20 percent increase would amount to $9,390, for a total of $56,339.
Anderson said she would support a teacher walkout, strike or "whatever it takes."
"No one’s listening and it’s embarrassing that this state that has so many resources is so low on the rating for teachers," she said.
Following West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky
The action here coincides with widespread, ongoing protests in Kentucky and Oklahoma, where teachers have publicly revolted over the low pay that ranks them among the worst compensated in the nation and the years of cuts to education funding since the recession.
Last week, thousands of Kentucky educators closed nearly 30 school districts with a sickout so they could protest at the state Capitol.
On Tuesday, Kentucky’s governor warned that a teacher walkout or strike would be "irresponsible" and a "mistake." Kentucky teachers are planning to return to the Capitol to protest Friday.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey frustrated educators with his comments Tuesday that he’d be willing to meet with decision makers to help solve the education funding problem but "what I don’t want to do is get into these political operatives’ political circus."
All three states are following successful action in West Virginia, where a statewide teacher walkout last month ended after nine consecutive days when legislators approved a 5 percent pay raise.
Walk-in vs. walkout vs. strike
In Arizona, the walk-ins were designed not to be disruptive, taking place before or after school hours. Organizers intended them as a symbolic show of force and a way to gauge the community’s support.
Nearly 20,000 people signed a petition online showing they had participated in a walk-in. Another petition in favor of supporting a school walkout had more than 20,000 signatures.
Arizona Educators United has announced it will stage a walkout, meaning teachers would actually leave school during work hours. They have not publicly announced a date.
If enough teachers walk out, it can force closure of schools and even entire districts.
In Oklahoma, where teachers walked out for the eighth consecutive school day Wednesday, districts announced weeks in advance that they would close all schools in support of teachers’ actions, and shared updates every day about the next day’s closures.
Many school boards and superintendents there have given teachers permission to walk out, differentiating that action from a strike, which would happen if superintendents require teachers to return to work and they protest anyway.
Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia are all "right to work" states that offer employees little to no job protections in the event of a strike. The risk of losing their jobs or part of their salaries if they take part in a walkout remains one of the biggest concerns for educators.
Worries about child care, child hunger
For Peoria High School, a Title I school where 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a walkout has some teachers and parents concerned.
"A walk-out is something we have talked about and worried about," Holly Holgate, a math teacher at Peoria High, said during the walk-in there.
Amanda Clark, whose children attend Cheyenne Elementary in Peoria, said that although a walkout would displace children, it would be worth it.
"If they’re gonna be uncomfortable because they have to find something else for their child to do that day, that’s what it’s gonna take," Clark said. "We’ve gotta make the parents uncomfortable. We’ve gotta make the constituents uncomfortable."
Administrators brace for possible school closures
Mark Joraanstad, executive director of Arizona School Administrators, told The Arizona Republic this week that the state’s school superintendents are in on-going internal discussions regarding the logistics of a walkout.
He said many superintendents expressed a desire to continue to pay educators during a walkout.
Few school superintendents, though, have chimed in on the movement and educators’ open intentions to walk out — either for or against.
But some school boards, including those in the state’s largest districts, Mesa and Tucson, have expressed public support for the movement, and several other school boards have indicated that they would follow suit.
Kay Steward, principal at Cholla Elementary School in Casa Grande, said she worries about what would happen if her teachers walked out. But she seemed to support their goals and possible action.
"I think (the discussions of a walkout) have to get more serious in order for the Legislature to actually listen, unfortunately," Steward said.
She said school administrators have been in constant communication about a contingency plan if teachers walk out.
"We know that if this happens we’d have kids who are with us all day, because we wouldn’t be able to get to their parents," Steward said. "We’re not sending kids home unless we know that they’re safe. We have alternate plans."
Supporters of increased school funding chant outside San Tan Charter School in Gilbert, during the state-wide teacher walk-in on April 11, 2018.
Lessons from other states
In Oklahoma, fears of a childcare shortage or child-hunger crisis haven’t materialized.
The state’s largest district, Oklahoma City Public Schools, provided free meals at more than 100 locations for anyone 18 and younger.
Dozens of organizations, churches and businesses stepped up to provide free or lower-priced child care.
The Oklahoma City Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services Department expanded its hours to offer free child care at its recreation centers every day, but almost no one showed up, according to department director Douglas Kupper.
"Because the whole community, including CEOs, understood and believed in what was occurring, they were very forgiving of vacation time or allowing parents to bring their kids to work," Kupper told The Republic Wednesday.
"Relatives stepped up — I talked to a couple people that their kids’ classmates’ parents who are stay-at-home moms took in two or three of the kids from the neighborhood so the working parents could go to work. Everybody was on board with this and understood it."
Parents’ support growing
Many parents who supported the walk-ins said they are willing to find childcare and help each other if teachers walk out.
Jackie Norris walked her grandson Noah, a kindergarten student at Cholla Elementary School in Casa Grande, and his friend to school early Wednesday as three dozen teachers protested outside.
"Me, my little kiddo and his friend will be right behind them with our little pickets, if they do (walk out) to support them," Norris said. "It’s been a long time coming. Anything that they do, they’ve got my support."
As for what would happen to Noah if his school were to close as part of the likely walkout, Norris said, "he’ll be home with me."
"I can start a little daycare with all the parents who need help with kids," Norris said. "Bring them. I’ll do anything to help support these teachers."
Republic reporters Lily Altavena and Lorraine Longhi contributed to this story.