In Arizona, the movement known as “Red for Ed” is catching fire, and AFSCME members who serve public school students as bus drivers, custodians and service workers are partnering with local teachers’ associations to stage mass walkouts.
In Phoenix, tens of thousands of education supporters filled the lawn of the state Capitol today to call attention to Arizona’s abysmal support for public education, as protests continued for the second day.
Since 2008, per-student funding for education in Arizona has fallen by 14 percent when adjusted for inflation. During the Great Recession, the state cut $1.5 billion in K-12 funding, the biggest cut in education in the nation. In 2016, the state restored just 18 percent of that funding, leaving public schools still facing serious shortfalls.
Teacher salaries in Arizona rank among the nation’s lowest, and school support staff are grossly underpaid. Though Gov. Doug Ducey proposed a 20 percent salary increase for teachers over the next two years, he left out raises for support staff and more funding for supplies, technology and textbooks. AFSCME members and teachers say that’s not enough.
“Educators and support staff have labored under nearly a decade of defunding … which makes it difficult to provide the service that our students deserve,” said Peter Herran, chairman of AFSCME Local 449, which represents about 800 support personnel in the Tucson Unified School District. “This is the first time that educators and labor organizations have united to improve the funding for education system in Arizona.”
For the bus drivers, educators, maintenance workers and custodians taking part in the walkout, there is risk involved, as Arizona is a “right-to-work” state where public employees are forbidden to strike, and labor protections are few. Nonetheless, schools are suffering so badly that these workers are willing to take the risk for the sake of their community.
“We carry the most precious cargo and we are still disrespected by the pay that we receive,” said Sonia Sabrina Salazar, a school bus driver in the Tucson Unified School District, and a member of Local 449. “We have so many responsibilities, ranging from the safety of the children to making sure the buses are safe to drive.”
Her union sister, Celina Marie Robles, a worker in the school district’s Transportation Department, added: “Our government needs to understand that our children are our future, and if they don’t have the proper funding to get the right equipment for classrooms, they won’t succeed.”
AFSCME-represented school support workers also participated in a teacher walkout in Colorado, where the protests are smaller compared to Arizona.
(Contributing: Jashua Bane, David Kreisman)