The Arizona legislature adjourned around 12:26 a.m. Friday morning on May 4th. This legislative body may have adorned, but as teachers, our fight is far from over! We stood united with our stakeholders and demonstrated to our lawmakers that we are a force to be reckoned with and they cannot continue to dismiss or ignore us and our scholars. Many have stated in the past, regarding Arizona public education, “Why don’t these teachers ever stand up for themselves?” Well, they aren’t asking that now! Even though the governor signed the K-12 portion of the Arizona budget into law, it doesn’t contain everything we wanted, but it contains much more than it would have without the brave, collective action of Arizona teachers, parents, scholars and community members.
We must continue to work with our lawmakers for the change we want to see–Of the failure to meet certain demands, Joe Thomas, president of Arizona Education Association, during several press conferences, stated-
“While this bill moves the needle, it still does not go far enough. It does not restore the more than $1 billion taken from our students and it leaves out school support staff like counselors, bus drivers, librarians, and many more who are vital to the success of our students. The truth is that this budget is far from perfect. Lawmakers brokered it behind closed doors as a partisan deal, without input from us. We were not able to change the minds of lawmakers, so the next step will be to change the faces of our lawmakers.”
It was quite a rollercoaster ride sitting in the gallery observing and learning how our lawmakers work together (or lack of). I don’t know if I ever exhaled the entire time. I was definitely charged and revved up like the Energizer bunny! Sometimes, it really felt like I was watching a dysfunctional family during Thanksgiving dinner. At times, it got very uncomfortable sitting in the gallery as attacks were thrown like grenades at the RedforEd supporters and teachers. It was definitely a throwback to the 1950s and McCarthyism. We were called a leftist revolution movement participating in Socialist activities. Are you kidding me? I had to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming all this. However, the majority of the legislators were positive and there were many supporters of the RedforEd movement joined hand-in-hand with teachers at the Capitol.
In my 20 years of teaching, this was my first time (and so many first for several of us) participating in a grass root movement, and listening and participating in the legislative process. ACTV (Arizona Capitol Television) and the RTS system became my new tech tools! Now that I know that these online tools exist, I plan to use them more often when our legislators are in session, especially when I can’t be there in person.
However, what really got my attention during that week is how many legislative bills I was unaware of that truly impact our schools and scholars. Groups like Save Our Schools Arizona were there to fight against certain bills and propositions like the school voucher law.
The school voucher bill in particular really made me sit up and take notice. Open enrollment and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, better known as ESAs is a contentious one in Arizona — it aims to give parents access to public funds that can be used for private school tuition, therapies, and other education-related services. Under a law passed last spring, the Arizona Legislature broadened the availability of ESAs to all of Arizona’s 1.1 million students. This means, under Proposition 305, if any Arizona parents want to take their children out of their public or charter schools, they can take the money with them. Ninety percent of the state money that would have been given to the school that the student previously attended would be allocated to the parent in the form of a debit card. Opponents of the law, that showed up at the Capitol, said it would drain too much money out of our already underfunded public schools. No kidding! Their contempt for this bill prompted the opponents to collect thousands of signatures last summer to put the ESA expansion on the 2018 ballot.
While at the Capitol, I also learned from one of the opponents of ESAs, until last year’s legislative session, “ESAs were only available to a small demographic of kids such as low-income children, those with disabilities, military families, and siblings of students who qualified. But legislators…who sponsored the universal voucher bill…wanted to increase the number of children who could use an ESA.” Lawmakers wanted to “repeal and replace” Senate Bill 1431, but I can only speculate that the sea of red outside and sitting inside the gallery caused their plan to fail. The proposal never even came up for a vote. Now the voters will decide the fate of this issue. This is why our presence is so important and now that we have made this bold statement, we must not back down. Lawmakers knew that this controversial program would turn out public school advocates this November, and these voters would likely vote them out of office. This is proactive activism at its finest.
This has definitely been an unprecedented, historic few weeks. Were there some missteps along the way? Absolutely! But we saw a vivacious and energetic group of educators spring to life in the form of the RedforEd movement. We demonstrated that we could organize our collective voices to impact change. We are back in our classrooms, but this fight demanding dedicated, sustainable revenue for our schools has just begun. My mind is still spinning and overflowing with all that I have learned. I have grown so much from this experience. It was also great to share it all with my scholars who had just as many questions about the legislative process as I did going in and now having been a part of it. I truly feel deeply inspired and connected to a larger educational family and I am so proud of all of us. We showed the nation that our scholars matter and we would not be silenced, or “go gentle into that good night.” Instead, we would “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”We definitely have a long way to go to meet the education funding needs of our state. As educators, we are committed to these first steps and we will not stop until our schools are fully funded. We must all pledge to do our part to continue to convene with stakeholders from all sides to foster collaboration around sustainable, bipartisan, shared solutions.
What will be your next steps? What are you committed to do? How will you continue to hold our representatives accountable?