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Arizona's teacher walkouts bring hope to Latino gubernatorial candidate

"The momentum is on the side of education," says David Garcia, a Democratic hopeful for governor in Arizona and a professor of education.
Image: Arizona Teachers Go On Strike And March To State Capitol
Arizona teachers march toward the State Capitol as part of a rally for the #REDforED movement on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.Ralph Freso / Getty Images

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Anamaria Velasco has been a teacher for over 18 years in this mountain city, directing traffic in the morning for the hurried families dropping off their kids at school before starting her day of teaching.

This week, the Latina teacher was one of the thousands of educators across the state who walked out of their classrooms demanding better salaries and better funded resources for support.

A single mother of three, Velasco said it is a struggle to support a family as a teacher in the state.

"It's extremely hard," she said. "I am living with my parents just trying to make ends meet, and there is just no way I can make it here in Flagstaff."

According to data compiled by Vox, average teacher salaries have dropped from over 54 thousand dollars a year in 2003 to under 46 thousand dollars a year, and many teachers say they don't make that.

Velasco’s frustration is no surprise to David Garcia, a gubernatorial hopeful who is running in Arizona's Democratic primary, which takes place in August. The Democratic winner will run against Arizona's current governor, Republican Doug Ducey.

Garcia, a professor of Education at Arizona State University with a PhD in Education from the University of Chicago, has been running his campaign focusing on education for over a year. He ran for Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2014 but fell short by 1 percent against a Republican, Diane Douglas.

Garcia said he sees the teacher walkout, branded #RedForEd, as an opportunity to fund education and find a proper balance between funding and taxes that can finally address Arizona's education woes.

Gov. Ducey has offered teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, but teachers have argued that the proposal leaves out too many details on how he would pay for the raise. Teachers also say reforms have to address the need for additional support staff, infrastructure and resources that educators in the state are demanding.

Arizona has cut spending levels for education 14 percent since 2008. A Vox report on Arizona outlines the impact that years of tax cuts and decreased funding has had on education. Like Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, the state's Republican-led legislature has steadily focused on tax cuts in the hopes this would attract more individuals and businesses to the state, which would then lead to an increase in tax revenue.

The state has reduced the top income tax bracket by over a third and has lowered corporate tax cuts, which has reduced revenue from almost a billion dollars to less than 400 million.

In the meantime, the U.S.News rankings of the nation's K-12 education systems places Arizona 48th — almost at the bottom of the list.

Arizona's teachers as well as national educators worry about the impact that years of little investment and underperforming schools is having on the state's children, especially its growing Hispanic population.

Latino students, who already comprise more than one out of five K-12 students in fourteen states, make up almost half (45 percent) of Arizona's student body.

"Latino students will soon be the majority in many states. A vibrant democracy, and the success of the Latino community, depends on its leaders and engaged, critical thinkers," said Julián Vásquez Heilig, a professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State University Sacramento.

The teacher protests, he said, are about the future of education, which greatly impacts Latinos.

"We are making ends meet"

Emily, who preferred to withhold her last name, talked to NBC News while on break from a walkout in Flagstaff. She works at a continuing school where many of her students are Native American. She has been in education for seventeen years, twelve in Arizona.

Life took a turn for Emily last December when her husband suffered a major stroke, leaving her as the main source of income for her family.

She turned somber when asked if she was afraid of losing her job and her mind went through the calculations over how many sick days she had and how long she could afford to hold out. "I feel like we are trying to be unified, but some are afraid of losing their jobs, and I'm now the main support for my family," she said. Asking to walk out on the job while going through a "big crisis" at home, she said, was very stressful, but she felt she had no choice.

Image: Arizona Teachers Go On Strike And March To State Capitol
Arizona teachers march toward the State Capitol as part of a rally for the #REDforED movement on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.Ralph Freso / Getty Images

"At this point we are making ends meet," she said.

Despite Gov. Ducey's offers, the veteran teacher said it's simply not enough to ignore the staff and other programs the children need. "As a counselor, you just can't underfund something already underfunded, and I have seen firsthand that if you don't fund programs, you are make the problems bigger elsewhere," said Emily.

Ducey and the Republican legislature are grappling with a tight budget, but the governor has taken tax hikes off the table, arguing that teacher pay raises can be addressed through funding cuts elsewhere.

Garcia comes to the table with a different proposition, which he says is necessary, though it may rankle the nerves of some Arizonans.

Democrat David Garcia announces his run for Arizona governor at the state Capitol in Phoenix, on April 12, 2017.
Democrat David Garcia announces his run for Arizona governor at the state Capitol in Phoenix, on April 12, 2017.AP

"The primary problem is there is no way we can get there without increasing revenue sources," he said. In other words, Arizona has to raise taxes.

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.

In fact, Garcia said Gov. Ducey's overtures to teachers are "for one reason and one reason only...He’s doing it because he knows the momentum is on the side of education."