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Arizona teachers receive conditional pay raise, set sights on midterms

“Right now I’d say this is a step in the right direction, but today is the end of the beginning of our first little battle. They have awoken a sleeping giant.”
Teachers camp out for the night as the Arizona Legislature debates a budget early on Thursday at the Capitol in Phoenix.Matt York / AP

The Arizona Legislature came to an agreement with the governor’s office on Thursday morning that provides the state’s teachers with a conditional 20 percent pay raise by 2020, a compromise struck on the sixth day of a teacher walkout.

Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed the bill early on Thursday, calling it “a good way to start the day” in a video statement that highlighted the percentage of the raise — an oversimplification, critics say, as the raise is based on the state’s economic growth and is not guaranteed.

“This is a real win for our teachers, for our kids, for our educators in the classroom, and we’re grateful for your help in getting this across the finish line,” he said just before signing the bill into law and holding it up for a photographer.

The Arizona Education Association said teachers would return to their classrooms on Thursday once the Legislature passed the state budget, but lawmakers squabbled late into the night and early morning hours, missing the deadline and forcing many schools across the state to close pre-emptively.

The bill ultimately passed Arizona's House of Representatives by a vote of 33-26, and its Senate by a vote of 20-9, according to state records.

But the teachers union said that while it was proud of what members had accomplished with the strike, their effort would not stop here.

“The #RedforEd fight continues," union President Joe Thomas and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a joint statement. "And since lawmakers aren’t getting the job done, we will. Today, educators will again rally at the Arizona Capitol. And over the next few days we will provide additional details about next steps.”

Republican Rep. Mark Finchem argues against an amendment to the state budget proposed by minority Democrats on Wednesday night.Bob Christie / AP

On Thursday, many educators made it clear that they aren’t prepared to celebrate just yet, as Republicans quashed most of their demands, including raising support staffers' salaries, capping class sizes at 25 and increasing the number of school counselors.

“This is great propaganda for Ducey, but the reality of it is that educators in Arizona are still very far behind their neighboring states,” said Cheryl Foster, an elementary school teacher in Phoenix.

Some educators compared the bill to a Trojan horse, as the raises aren't guaranteed and the bill fails to address many other issues that schools face. Teachers provided a stark reminder to lawmakers at the Capitol, warning that they plan to bring their newly empowered grass-roots infrastructure to the midterms in November.

Organizers said they are maintaining a list of politicians who supported education and those who have acted as roadblocks during this process. They said they plan to vote out disagreeable lawmakers and bring their issues to a ballot initiative if necessary. Many groups are working on getting the 225,000 signatures required to have voters decide on school measures, rather than their elected officials.

“A lot of people who became activated around this were either only casually engaged or not politically engaged at all — they might have voted every four years,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, an English teacher at Arizona State University and a member of Save Our Schools Arizona, said of the growing grass-roots movement. “So to actually sit through the budget hearings and be engaged on the minutiae of the process, people are absolutely flabbergasted by how our representative democracy does and does not function.”

Penich-Thacker said that while the bill isn’t exactly what they wanted, it is a win that will function as inspiration down the road. Their advocacy, she said, moved the Legislature to provide more funding than lawmakers originally said was possible.

Ducey previously offered teachers a 1 percent raise, saying that was all the state could afford.

“Absolutely everyone considers this motivation for the November midterms,” Penich-Thacker said.

Foster, who spent her Wednesday night and early Thursday morning at the Capitol, agreed.

“It’s invigorated my desire to do what’s right for people in Arizona and children in Arizona,” she said, calling herself a former “lazy voter.”

“Right now I’d say this is a step in the right direction, but today is the end of the beginning of our first little battle. They have awoken a sleeping giant.”