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Critics Say Arizona Teacher Strike . . . Teaches More About Politics Than Pay Raises

May 8, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By DEXTER DUGGAN

PHOENIX — Leaders of a major walkout by Arizona public school teachers seeking pay raises actually were motivated by partisan political activism against Republicans.
That was the accusation voiced by some hosts and callers on widely heard conservative radio talk programs here as public schools around the state headed into a second week of closure as this hardcopy issue of The Wanderer went to press on May 3.
The walkout, which began on April 26, repeatedly drew large crowds of red-shirted protesters to the state capitol here as legislators worked to honor Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s recent pledge to raise teacher pay by a hefty 20 percent by 2020.
Teachers rewarded Ducey by walking out anyway. They dubbed their movement #RedForEd.
Replacing Ducey and other GOP state officials with Democratic Party candidates in this November’s elections was bruited as the motivating energy behind this activism.
NBC News reported on April 27 that Arizona Democratic gubernatorial hopeful David Garcia looked to the current climate as a warning to the GOP. NBC said:
“Pointing to the political climate that has given rise to movements across the country like the March for Our Lives protests and the #MeToo movement, Garcia thinks the education movement that has seen teachers walk out across the country is a sign to Republicans that come November there will be huge consequences.”
Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, Republican Diane Douglas, futilely had asked the teachers not to go on walkout. In an April 20 statement that headlined Douglas “implores” teachers to reconsider their plans, the superintendent said:
“It’s an absolute shame that it has come to this, but now that we are all in this situation, I hope that the teachers and capitol leadership can rebuild trust and come together to resolve this matter as quickly as possible for the sake of our students.”
Douglas began her statement by saying, “I have long been a vocal proponent of providing teachers with significant pay raises.”
Some observers saw walkout parallels with large, angry demonstrations at the Wisconsin state capitol in 2011 against proposed limits on collective bargaining.
“The unions are trying to replace the DD’s,” one Phoenix talk host said, referring to Arizona Republicans Doug Ducey and Diane Douglas.
The free-market Goldwater Institute based here warned school districts that the walkout actually “constitutes an illegal strike,” but the Grand Canyon State’s largest daily paper, the leftist-tilted Arizona Republic, cheered it on.
All the way across the top of the big Sunday, April 29, Republic’s broadsheet-size front page, supposedly a news page, was the banner, “#Red4Ed: A grassroots civics lesson.” The headline didn’t attribute that inspirational civics-lesson description to someone else. It was the Republic’s own editorial judgment.
Organizers saw the protest grow “into a tsunami of grassroots activism, culminating in the largest teacher walkout in recent U.S. history, with more than 1,000 schools closed, and 850,000 students affected,” the Republic enthused.
The newspaper said the median pay for Arizona elementary school teachers is $44,990, according to data tracked by the non-profit Expect More Arizona organization.
This would mean that in a household with two such teachers, the income would be nearly $90,000, hardly a shabby sum in a relatively low-cost state like Arizona, where major expenses like homeownership may be only half that of neighboring California.
Phoenix-based KFYI radio news (550 AM) said the aim is to bring average teacher pay here up to $58,000.
James T. Harris, a KFYI talk host and former high school teacher in Wisconsin, brought a Badger State GOP legislator on the air to recall death threats against her during her state’s 2011 capitol tumult.
Although death threats weren’t in headlines here, the Arizona protesters’ determination to get their own way was a continuing theme, regardless of resulting disruptions.
Among the consequences, countless families had to arrange supervision for youngsters who weren’t in school, with nurses reportedly being asked to work extra shifts at hospitals because other nurses had to care for their unschooled children.
Even the Republic reported on May 2 that school closures were cutting off a major supply of donor blood for blood banks because, according to a blood-services spokeswoman, high school students are the biggest group of donors thanks to school drives.
With summer vacation just around the corner, one might ask why teachers were closing down school systems by their own absences now, instead of postponing their activism for a few more weeks. But that’s the answer: Disruption wouldn’t work if school is closed anyway and there’s nothing to disrupt.
Radio talk host Harris said on May 2 that protesters said legislators weren’t doing their jobs by failing to deliver the pay boost yet, but, Harris said, the truant teachers certainly weren’t doing their own jobs. “It’s hard to wrap your head around it,” he said.
In a letter dated April 27, the Goldwater Institute warned school district superintendents: “This week, your district unlawfully closed schools as part of a coordinated plan to allow public school employees to refuse to report for duty or to discharge their contractual obligations as district employees. Although dubbed a ‘walkout,’ this action constitutes an illegal strike.
“This letter is to inform you and all district employees that these acts are unlawful. If the district does not reopen and employees do not return to their duties, parents and students will have a legal cause of action against them,” wrote Goldwater’s vice president of litigation, Timothy Sandefur.
Because the Arizona constitution guarantees students the right to a public education, Sandefur wrote, “This unlawful strike — and the district’s efforts to aid or encourage it — are therefore not only a breach of contract, but an intentional effort to deprive Arizona students of their constitutional rights.”
Arizona law doesn’t permit public school employees to strike, he wrote, and the “refusal of public employees to honor the conditions of their employment contracts is a breach of contract, and a breach of contract constitutes insubordinate and unprofessional conduct under state law.”
Harris, the radio host, said on May 1 that a new group named Purple for Parents had formed to oppose #RedForEd and was “growing exponentially.”
“I sense that parents have had enough,” Harris said, warning the teachers, “You’re completely underestimating the animosity that is building against you. . . . I don’t think they understand” what parents are thinking.
Deep in a full-page story on #RedForEd on April 29, the Republic acknowledged the left-wing politics of some movement leaders that openly was being called socialist and Communist on local talk radio.
One of the most prominent leaders is 23-year-old Noah Karvelis, in his second year of teaching after moving to Arizona following university graduation in Illinois.
Karvelis had been a volunteer in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and canvassed last year for Knock Every Door, the Republic admitted.
#KnockEveryDoor’s website (knockeverydoor.org) headlines “political revolution in your community” and laments “the disastrous 2016 election.”
The site says, “We help volunteers start door-to-door canvasses for candidates, issues or just to talk about what’s at stake in our communities after the election of Trump. The most important thing is for as many people as possible to get to work having the conversations necessary to build a majority of voters who will support economic and racial justice at election time.”
Had an important leader of a statewide strike turned out to have, say, a Tea Party background, one can be pretty sure the Republic repeatedly would characterize him as “controversial” and “divisive.” But it seemed to have taken talk radio to stir the newspaper’s reluctant interest in what’s behind people like Karvelis.
He also is, ahem, campaign manager for a Democratic candidate for Arizona superintendent of public instruction, Kathy Hoffman, the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, the Republic added, another prominent walkout figure, Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, had held a news conference to endorse David Garcia, that Democrat running for governor.
The newspaper named a few young activist teachers including Karvelis who moved to Arizona and still are picking up experience.
“More than one-fifth of 46,000 Arizona teachers in 2016-2017 were either in their first three years of teaching or lacked the basic qualifications, such as formal training,” the April 29 Republic said.
Two days after the strike began, The Wanderer, hoping to gather some quotations, stopped by the hotel where local Republican leaders were having an awards lunch on April 28.

Education Reform

Seth Leibsohn, co-host of Phoenix-based KKNT radio’s (960 AM) Seth and Chris Show, told The Wanderer, “The teachers asked for a substantial raise. They were given it. They need to learn to take yes for an answer.”
Now, Leibsohn said, “we need to get to the serious business of education reform.”
The #RedForEd leadership hasn’t done a good job of divorcing politics from policy, he said, adding that a distinction needs to be made between teachers and the #RedForEd movement.
Diane Hirsch, a retired nurse and precinct committeewoman, told The Wanderer that considering summer vacation is just around the corner, “To me, the timing is very strange for this walkout….
“I certainly would like the governor’s (teacher funding) plan to go forward. I have empathy for the teachers,” Hirsch said.
Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake this year, said, “The only thing I could say is, I was sheriff for 24 years,” and whenever he gave a speech, “it was, ‘take care of our teachers’.”
Asked if he favored the strike, Arpaio replied, “How can I say? You have First Amendment rights.”
Another man urged Arpaio to step along for the GOP lunch before The Wanderer could pursue the thought as to whether expressing “free speech” through a strike conflicts with teachers’ contractual duties.

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