How #RedForEd propelled Proposition 208 to a potential victory

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Rachel Clawson often heard the same advice from veteran teachers when she was in college: Keep your head down.

“You can control what’s inside your classroom,” she said they told her. “Don’t worry about anything else outside of your four walls.”

In 2018, that refrain was turned on its head.

What started as a trickle of educators protesting chronically underfunded Arizona schools in small groups on dewy mornings before the first bell rang rapidly turned into a full-fledged movement. Their protests drove tens of thousands of teachers to walk out of their classrooms for a week, canceling classes at Arizona schools.

The movement was dubbed #RedForEd. And at the end of the walkout, the educators protesting pledged to “Remember in November.”

It appears they did, as sustained support for the movement has propelled candidates to state office and has perhaps led Proposition 208, a sweeping education funding measure, to victory.

#RedForEd also prompted a significant infusion of money from state lawmakers for teacher raises, and lawmakers have reversed cuts to education funding dating to the Great Recession.

It will take years to understand what impact the money will make on the state’s public education system, if any. But the funding boosts themselves illustrate the enormous impact #RedForEd has made on education funding and in state politics.

Teachers reflecting on the movement’s power in state elections on Wednesday told The Arizona Republic they plan to remain politically active.

“#RedForEd empowered teachers to see what what they were capable of doing,” Clawson, a Tempe history teacher taking the school year off after having a baby, said.

Teachers remained energized

Clawson’s involvement with #RedForEd began in April 2018, when she began seeing other teachers wearing red shirts on Wednesdays. The movement hooked her.

“These were things that I had been thinking and feeling for a long time: That teachers should get paid more that we’re underfunded,” she said. “It just felt very empowering.”

Arizona lawmakers made some of the deepest cuts to education in the nation during the Great Recession. Some teachers said their salaries remained frozen for years, and national rankings routinely ranked Arizona at the bottom for teacher salaries.

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Salaries have not kept up with rising rents, leaving teachers to struggle to find housing and driving many teachers out of the profession.

Frank Eager, a ceramics teacher at Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria, said his salary has increased from $25,000 to $50,000 in two decades of teaching. He believes if he had chosen a different profession, his salary would be double or triple what he makes.

But he loves his job. Eager has steadily been involved with #RedForEd because he wants more people to know what challenges teachers face, he said. And he believes #RedForEd showed voters that teachers needed a raise.

“People know we’re underpaid,” he said. “Governors — Republicans, Democrats, both — have never taken this huge step to really financially fund education,” he said. “It’s always been that they kind of kicked it down the curb a little bit.”

What effect has #RedForEd had on voters?

Gov. Doug Ducey, amid protests and rising calls for a walkout in 2018 promised a 20% raise by 2020 for teachers. While the money intended for the raises significantly increased salaries across the state, not all teachers got a full 20% increase.

That promise was not enough to sway educators, who walked out for a week in late April 2018. After the state budget passed with the first installment of Ducey’s 20% raise, educators packed up and returned to the classroom, promising to “Remember in November.”

CLOSE

On April 27, 2018, thousands
of teachers, parents and students
participated in a massive #RedforEd
rally at the Arizona Capitol.

The Republic | azcentral.com

They proposed a ballot measure, Invest in Ed, which did not make it to the November 2018 ballot after the Arizona Supreme Court deemed the measure did not clearly state its impact on taxpayers. But teachers did see another educator, Kathy Hoffman, ride a #RedForEd wave to office. Hoffman was the first Democrat elected to lead Arizona’s Department of Education since the mid-1990s.

#RedForEd, Hoffman said, “initially mobilized a lot of teachers and helped to wake up Arizona communities, families, teachers, educators about the significant issues that our schools are facing.”

Education advocates from nonprofit Stand For Children and the Arizona Center for Economic Progress came back this year with a new iteration of Invest in Ed. This time, they said they believed it could withstand legal challenges.

Still energized, teachers spent the spring and early summer gathering signatures for Invest in Ed, which became Proposition 208, currently in the lead, according to state election results.

David Garcia, a professor of education, said that before #RedForEd, education funding propositions such as Proposition 123 needed support from Republicans and the business community. With teachers mobilized and Proposition 208 on its way to win, that’s not the case anymore, he said.

“They needed to take their profession, and the future of their profession, into their own hands,” he said. “And that meant getting involved at the Legislature.”

Garcia also lost to Ducey in Arizona’s 2018 gubernatorial race. Garcia was backed by #RedForEd’s supporters but lost. He said progressive propositions, such as 208, are more likely to pass because voters can better separate measures from political parties.

Arizona voters in 2016 approved a progressive ballot measure raising the minimum wage.

“They can stand unique enough so that voters can make an independent decision of those, regardless of how they vote on party politics,” he said.

What happens next?

Rep. T.J. Shope,  R-Coolidge, said the 20% raises promised by the governor were “set up to fail” when some school boards chose to spread out the money to other staff members, such as counselors and nurses, rather than ensure teachers got a full 20%.

If Proposition 208 wins, whether the funding it raises will have an impact on teacher salaries remains to be seen, he said.

“If you’re going to use this to go ahead and… move money around and make it so that way you’re once again spreading a dedicated stream thin, it probably has less of an impact,” he said.

Hoffman said Proposition 208 is a “step in the right direction,” but more work in recruiting, mentoring and retaining teachers is needed to stem the state’s severe teacher shortage. COVID-19 has only made the shortage worse: 751 teachers have quit since August, an increase from 427 in 2018.

The money Proposition 208 raises will also go to school counselors and other support staff members, she said, and hopefully help stem shortages in those areas, too.

“We have seen significant shortages when it comes to speech pathologists and school psychologists, school counselors, bus drivers — all these other critical roles in our schools,” she said.

Teachers like Eager are also celebrating hard-fought wins locally. In the Peoria Unified School District, the renewal of a $30 million local property tax is on track to win. The request failed in 2019 and the district has long struggled to pass school property tax measures. If the override fails, district officials said they would have to cut staff members and increase class sizes.

“When I went to bed last night I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we actually have a lead,'” he said. “That hasn’t happened my whole entire teaching career for overrides in our district.”

Peoria also requested voter approval for a $125 million bond to cover building repairs and safety improvements. The bond is on track to fail. That means, to Eager, his work in the community isn’t done.

“There’s got to be buy-in from the community as well, not just from the teachers,” he said. 

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