Arizona teachers went on strike last week to demand more funding for their under-resourced schools and for an increase in salaries that require many educators to work two or three jobs. The state legislature is working on a plan that teachers will accept, at which point they said they would return to the classroom.
These teachers follow others in states including Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia who have this year demanded the same things amid a crisis in the teaching profession.
For years teachers have said they are underpaid and their schools underfunded. They have also felt under attack by policymakers who have instituted assessment programs based in large part on student standardized test scores, and who have restricted teacher autonomy in the classroom.
A recent report from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that in 2015, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per students than they were in 2008 after the Great Recession hit. It also said:
In most states, school funding has gradually improved since 2015, but some states that cut very deeply after the recession hit are still providing much less support. As of the current 2017-2018 school year, at least 12 states have cut “general” or “formula” funding — the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools — by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade, according to a survey we conducted using state budget documents. Seven of those 12 — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma — enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding. One of these — Kansas — repealed some of the tax cuts earlier this year and increased school funding, but not enough to restore previous funding levels or satisfy the state’s Supreme Court, which recently ruled that the funding is unconstitutionally inadequate.
In this piece, John-David Bowman, a history teacher in Mesa Public Schools who was the 2015 Arizona State Teacher of the Year, explains why the Arizona teachers are striking. He is a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and he advocates for students and teachers of Arizona by giving speeches and writing. This first appeared on Education Post, and I was given permission to publish it.
By John-David Bowman
I love my profession. I love my colleagues. I love my students. But I have become so hurt by the situation that exists in my state involving education.
Public education has been the primary path through which millions of people have been able to climb the socioeconomic ladder in our society. Sadly, many of the policymakers of Arizona have made it a priority to damage public education at the cost of the students who need it most.
Teachers here are tired of having their salaries frozen and struggling from paycheck to paycheck. Our governor is touting an ambitious plan to give teachers a 20 percent raise, but it’s widely criticized as unsustainable financially and it ignores key employees in school districts. Arizona needs our policymakers to acknowledge what is clear and obvious.
The facts are undeniable: Arizona ranks in the bottom of most education funding rankings. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. As an education advocate for the teachers, students and support staff of my state, I must try to shed light on the true nature of this crisis.
For 11 years I have taught at the same school. My hope was that I would retire there — but life intervenes, so I’ll be moving to a new district in the fall. I was nervous to leave the only place I knew and had come to love, but figured it shouldn’t be too hard to find another good job in the classroom because, after all, there is a teacher shortage crisis in Arizona. Despite many exciting interviews and job offers, I was shocked at the low salaries I was offered.
How could I move districts, do the same job and, in the end, make so much less? This was not the fault of the districts or their respective leadership. They cannot afford to pay what they want because of the state’s drastic cuts to education funding over the last few decades.
But honestly, this isn’t about me. I have the luxury of having an amazing wife whose success in her own field has allowed me to continue to teach. The frustration I feel is for the many teachers I know who are struggling.
So many of my colleagues work extra jobs. They wait tables, work retail or anything else they can do to sustain themselves and their families at the bare minimum level. Even my best friend and colleague still struggles to make ends meet — he has tempted suitors with their full choice of the value menu at the golden arches, but as you might expect, this has proved unsatisfying.
To say we knew this is what we would be paid is explicitly untrue. When I started, my pay scale stated I would be given raises starting in my third year and every year thereafter. Instead, our salaries were frozen for the next eight years and then we were told there is no more pay scale. The only way I can receive more salary is to earn another degree. But after two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, I feel that I am already qualified and don’t see the point of incurring any more student debt.
What is the result of this terrible situation? Teachers are leaving in droves.
More importantly, there’s a scarcity of new teachers coming into the profession. I have been lucky to teach many of the best students in Arizona. But I can count on one hand how many of them have chosen to become educators in this state.
That is the problem. We do not have enough teachers staying and we have a dwindling number wanting to come in to the profession.
The consequence is that students suffer. Yet the voices we hear from the least in the media on this issue are from the students.
When I announced I’d be leaving my district to go to a new school, some of my students cried. This breaks my heart every time. Because when teachers leave, students lose.
As of December, we had 2,000 positions open in Arizona. That is 60,000 to 70,000 students who do not have a qualified, knowledgeable, passionate teacher instructing them.
Students are supposed to come first, but it seems that is not the case in Arizona.
I hope this situation can be resolved. I hope that current teachers are compensated for the tens of thousands of dollars that we have lost over the years. I hope that we can find means to encourage the youth to want to be educators in Arizona.
Most importantly, I hope our students are not continually robbed of the teachers they care about because our policymakers refuse to find a solution.