Six questions and answers about the Arizona teacher strike

They're calling it a "walk-out" but in plain English, this is a strike. And it will be the first of its kind in Arizona, since it involves all of the state's teachers at once. Here are six of the most common questions about the strike and the answers you need to know.

1. Wait, what's going on?

After adjusting for cost of living, Arizona elementary school teacher salaries are ranked 50th in the nation while high school teacher salaries are 48th, according to the Morrison Institute at ASU. In response to this, Governor Ducey released a plan last week to raise teacher salaries 20 percent by 2020. Despite this plan, educators decided to take a vote on whether to strike for additional funding, and 78 percent of votes were in favor of a "walk-out" (read: strike) starting Thursday, April 26. The teachers have presented a list of demands including automatic pay raises every year, a halt to any tax cuts until Arizona education spending reaches the national average (which won't happen unless we increase spending by more than $3.6 billion per year), class sizes of 23 students, raises for support staff like bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teaching aides, and an increase in total annual education funding of roughly $1 billion to match the inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending level from 2008.

2. Is the teachers' union orchestrating this?

The Arizona Education Association (AEA) is the closest thing Arizona has to a teachers' union, but they are not a true union. Arizona is a right-to-work state, so the AEA does not have collective bargaining rights, and K-12 teachers in Arizona do not have tenure that protects them from being fired for poor performance. This makes the AEA more of an advocacy organization, very different from the strong teachers' unions in Chicago or the east coast, for example. The AEA is playing a major role in the strike and the #RedForEd movement, but the initial momentum came from a new group of teachers called Arizona Educators United (AEU).

3. Do teachers in Arizona have to join the union? And did only union members get to vote on the strike?

"Because Arizona is a Right-to-Work state, you do not have to join or pay dues to any union organization in order to keep your job, salary, benefits or seniority." For full-time teachers who do want to join the AEA, dues are $553 per year.

The AEA's website says it has fewer than 20,000 members, including non-teaching staff, while there are close to 60,000 teachers in Arizona schools. That means no more than one third of Arizona teachers are AEA/"union" members. And since 57,000 teachers and non-teaching staff voted in the poll on the strike, it's clear plenty of non-members were included.

4. Will teachers who voted against this be forced to strike? What happens to them, will they lose their pay?
Credit: Flickr/ Andy Blackledge
If a teacher's entire school closes during the strike due to most teachers walking out, then any "anti-strike" teachers will not be able to come to work. Each school district is developing its own plan for how to respond to the strike. Most districts have announced that they are hopeful they can stay open with limited staff, while others such as Mesa Public Schools are already anticipating a full closure.

Mesa Public Schools has also clarified that during a strike in their district, certified teachers will continue to receive their regular pay per their contracts, while "classified" (non-teaching / hourly) staff will not. For each day of a strike, the school year will likely need to be extended by an additional day. Certified teachers will not receive pay during those extra days (since they will have been paid during the strike instead), but classified staff will. As a separate issue, diplomas for graduating seniors may be delayed until those extra days are completed.

5. Haven't we already increased education funding lately? What happened to the Prop 123 money? What about the bond and override elections all the time? What about the lottery?

  • Proposition 123 was a 2016 settlement for funds that the state owed to schools to keep up with inflation but had not paid for several years due to the Great Recession. Most districts did use these funds for increased teacher salaries, to make up for the lack of inflationary funding in the previous several years.

  • Bond election revenues are for specific capital projects such as new school construction or renovation. (Prior to the Great Recession, the state funded most new school construction through the School Facilities Board.) Override election revenues can be used for operational costs such as teacher salaries, hiring additional teachers to keep class sizes down, or bolstering academic programs, but they still don't bring schools back to the funding levels they had in 2008.

  • Most lottery money goes into the state general fund, where it can be used for any appropriation approved by the legislature and the governor, including education. Some of the lottery money ($40M in FY17) goes to the state universities. But none of the money is formally dedicated to K-12 education.

In short, these funding streams have gotten us where we are today, with teacher salaries still among the lowest in the country after adjusting for cost of living. (Administrative spending is below the national average, so that's not the reason either.) And while spending more money on education doesn't guarantee better outcomes--see Washington, D.C., for example--we're not going to get anywhere if we can't recruit and retain the thousands of qualified and motivated people we need to address Arizona's ongoing teacher shortage.

6. Can teachers be fired for walking out?

The AEA has advised its members that a 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion determined a statewide strike would be illegal and could cause teachers to lose their teaching credentials. (That's why they keep saying "walk-out" instead of "strike.") However, districts appear to be making their own decisions on any disciplinary actions to take. The leadership of Phoenix Union High School District and Tucson Unified School District, among others, have publicly supported the #RedForEd movement. Tucson's superintendent has discouraged teachers from striking but has said any teachers who walk out don't need to fear for their jobs. The superintendent of Kyrene School District, in contrast, has been clear that, "Any activity that forces the cancellation of class or interrupts the learning of the children with whom we are entrusted would be unacceptable."

Now you're up to date. Be sure to follow our campaign on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with the latest news and updates as the strike gets underway next week.