The first days of most strikes are easy.
Now comes the hard part.
Last week’s opening days of a statewide teacher walkout over pay and school funding were predictably high on energy and hope.
But as most labor leaders know, a walkout is about much more than just those walking the picket lines. It’s about winning the hearts and minds not only of community opinion leaders but of business owners and neighbors, too. There are bills on which to ask forgiveness, kids to ask the neighbors to care for and the sleepless nights that come with putting your career on the line. If it takes a village to raise a child, it will take an equally strong community to get their teachers through a work stoppage that is about all the right goals, even if the tactics turn out to be wrong.
The goals, of course, are to get every Arizona child the best education possible. That means giving students and teachers the best tools within the resources available. Better pay is thus a means to an end – it attracts the best teachers, stems rapid turnover and stabilizes a key sector of the local workforce. If other states with similar economic capacity have been able to do right by their teachers, why not Arizona?
The answer is more political and cultural than economic. Empty-nester retirees fleeing high-tax states and with little personal stake anymore in public education have encouraged conservative ideologues to pursue trickle-down tax cuts and privatized school choice, despite evidence that neither is working. Net corporate tax revenues on which public schools depend are off dramatically after a decade of tax cuts, and vouchers have served mainly to transfer public dollars to private and religious schools, regardless of educational outcome.
The teacher walkout, then, is more than a labor issue. It’s a challenge to the starve-the-beast approach to public services practiced by the Republican majority in Phoenix. As such, it’s a question of political philosophy that can ultimately be won only through the ballot box. Education advocates need to align with anti-dark money activists, sustainable energy supporters and others to form a broad-based political movement that leads to a new majority, and tactically a strike isn’t the best way to do that.
On paper, it might seem that keeping the pressure on Gov. Ducey and the Legislature will work – if he agreed to a 20 percent teacher pay raise, why not an extra billion dollars more for support staff, school buildings and overall public education spending? The answer lies in where the money will come from – not from a dedicated tax but out of ongoing revenue that may or may not survive when the state economy enters its next downturn. (At least he’s not trying to tap the schools’ own land trust fund any further.) And the GOP’s record of opposing and reneging on past school funding deals while shifting funds to the unaccountable private sector make it likely that even if they negotiate, it won’t be in good faith.
That’s why a ballot initiative that creates a legislative untouchable stream of tax revenue, whether from sales, income or property, has been our choice from the start. Walking out on students during the crucial last month of the school year is sure to alienate the moderate Republicans in Sun City and the conservative Democrats in the Tucson suburbs, the ones educators will need in any ballot fight over taxes and candidates for the Legislature. A walkout also continues to deflect time and energy from the grassroots organizing and fundraising that has to be come together by November 6.
Our advice top teachers: Forget about negotiating with Ducey and the Legislature or attempting to strongarm them with a strike. As long as their core mantra is “No new taxes,” they aren’t going to agree to a dedicated funding source, which is the only way students’ long-term interests will be served. Go back to your students and take care of our families. Then dedicate yourself to building a majority for political and social change in November. There are barely six months left and the clock is ticking.