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Arizona Joins Red State Revolt: Teachers’ Strike Reaches Day Five

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Schools are closed for a fifth day in Arizona, as thousands of teachers continue to strike demanding better funding for education. Crowds of striking teachers dressed in red T-shirts have rallied at the state Capitol this week and last to demand a 20 percent pay raise for educators and decreased class sizes, among other demands. The strike began Thursday, with teachers protesting the $1 billion funding cuts to education in the state since the 2008 recession. The teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona have been described by some as a “red-state revolt.” In 2016, Donald Trump won all four states. The Arizona Legislature is expected to vote on a budget today, which organizers say will now include additional funding for education. If the budget passes, teachers say they will return to class tomorrow. We speak to Noah Karvelis, an elementary and middle school music teacher in Phoenix and one of the leaders of #RedForEd and Arizona Educators United. He helped start the teachers’ protests in Arizona.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Arizona, where schools are closed for a fifth day as thousands of teachers continue to strike, demanding better funding for education. Crowds of striking teachers dressed in red T-shirts have rallied at the state Capitol this week and last to demand a 20 percent pay raise for educators and decreased class sizes, among other demands. The strike began Thursday, with the teachers protesting the $1 billion funding cuts to education in the state since the 2008 recession. Mary Kotnour is a teacher in Rio Rico, Arizona.

MARY KOTNOUR: Well, the bottom line is funding, funding for education. So, a lot of people think it’s just for teachers’ salaries, and it’s not. It’s funding for the schools, for our kids. We haven’t had—the funding stopped in 2008 and has not increased. It’s for our support staff, as well. So, it’s for everybody. It’s not, what some people think, just for teachers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona have been described by some as a “red-state revolt.” In 2016, Donald Trump won all four of these states. The Arizona Legislature is expected to vote on a budget today, which organizers say will now include additional funding for education. If the budget passes, teachers say they will return to class tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: At a Tuesday evening news conference at the Capitol in Phoenix, the leaders of the Arizona Educators United group and Arizona Education Association, the state teachers’ union, credited the teachers’ movement with the additional—for the additional education funding lawmakers are expected to approve.

So, for more, we’re going to Arizona, where we’re joined right now by Noah Karvelis. He is an elementary and middle school music teacher in Phoenix, one of the leaders of #RedForEd and Arizona Educators United, helped start the teacher protests in Arizona.

Noah, welcome to Democracy Now! Just describe the scene at the state House yesterday.

NOAH KARVELIS: The scene is incredible. We have thousands and thousands of educators down there advocating for their students and standing up and essentially saying, “Enough is enough!” On the very first day of the walkout, we started with a march that included about 75,000 people. We filled the streets. And what we showed was decades of frustration. And we stood up, and we said that it’s time for a change. It’s an incredible sight to see right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Noah, could you talk about how this strike developed? Because one of the interesting things about all of these walkouts is that they’ve occurred largely from the ground up, from the grassroots up, not as calls for the union leaders of either the NEA or the AFT, the two major national unions, actually calling the strikes.

NOAH KARVELIS: Yeah, this is—really started from a grassroots organization called Arizona Educators United. We have been building energy and building an infrastructure, and we’ve worked very collaboratively with the union, with Arizona Education Association, to really move this forward. And it started with educators standing up and saying that we need to bring a change and that educators are going to be the ones who bring that change. And that’s been a very powerful thing for us, especially in a conservative state, to have educators really lead the charge and advocate for themselves and their students.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And to what degree did the West Virginia walkout inspire or give people a sense that they could do this?

NOAH KARVELIS: You know, it’s hard to even put into words. It was incredibly inspiring to see that. Here in Arizona, all the educators here, I think, were watching that moment happen and that movement happen in West Virginia. And you look around at your own situation, and you say, “Hey, we need to stand up and do something here, as well.” We’re last in teacher pay. We’re 48th in the nation in per-pupil spending. We have a $1.1 billion deficit in education. Why are we not doing something here? So, to see West Virginia stand up and fight back, you look at your own situation, and you have to stand up and fight back. And that was incredibly inspiring to us in Arizona.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, speaking to the press last week about the teacher walkout.

GOV. DOUG DUCEY: If we pass a 20 percent pay increase and people continue to strike, I don’t think that makes sense to citizens, to parents. I don’t think it will make sense to teachers. We’re going to do our best here. I’m confident we can get this plan done. And then I want to get our teachers back to what they do best, inside the classroom. We’ve got graduations, summer breaks, missions coming up and people headed off to the military on dates certain. Let’s address this issue and then get back to business.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. Talk about what you’ve demanded, what the state has offered and what you’re willing to settle for, what the teachers in Arizona, this remarkable strike that’s taking place.

NOAH KARVELIS: Well, we’ve demanded an answer to the $1.1 billion in cuts that we’ve seen. So, as I mentioned, we’re 48th in the nation in per-pupil spending. We’re last in teacher pay. We need to see that change. So our demand is that we restore that funding, we fill these gaps, because right now we’re hemorrhaging teachers. We continue to lose incredible teachers every single day. And at the end of all this, who are really hurt are the students. They’re losing their chance at an academic future.

So, right now we’re looking at this budget that has been proposed. Originally, the governor said he was going to invest about $65 million in education. We’re now up to about $406 million in this total package. So, we’ve forced the Legislature about as far as they’re willing to go. They’re able to do more. They could fix this crisis right now, but they’ve done as much as they’re willing to do. And that’s all due to our movement, which is incredibly inspiring. They were set on a $65 million package. That was going to be it, a 2 percent teacher raise. Now we’re here. It’s truly amazing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the participation levels, have you seen any waning in the support of the teachers, as it’s now dragged on for several days?

NOAH KARVELIS: You know, we really haven’t. We had more support, in terms of numbers, at the Capitol on Monday than we did on Friday. So it’s continuing to grow. And right now, the educators are beginning to realize that our Legislature will not solve this issue. They’re seeing these people, and they’re seeing what they’re doing to our system. And now they’re more inspired than ever to make a change. So, the frustration only continues to grow at this moment, and the dedication to the cause in the students only continues to grow with this movement. So, the support is incredibly strong.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Noah, I wanted to ask you about your senator from Arizona, John McCain, who is dealing with brain cancer, of course, at home in Arizona, just wrote a book. But talking about Donald Trump, he said, “He has declined to distinguish the actions of our government from the crimes of despotic ones. The appearance of toughness, or a reality show facsimile of toughness, seems to matter more than any of our values.” That’s Senator McCain talking about Donald Trump. Does Senator McCain—do senators have a role in what’s happening right now with the teachers of Arizona?

NOAH KARVELIS: They’ve been incredibly quiet on this so far. They really have not stood up one way or another on this issue, at least as far as I’ve been made aware. We haven’t been contacted by them. I haven’t seen them, you know, put on the red shirt and come out with us. So that’s frustrating that they’re not out there advocating alongside of us. There are some people on a more local level who are, but a lot of our legislators refuse to engage with this issue. They refuse to invest in our public schools, in our public infrastructure and our state. It’s incredibly frustrating.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Another person who’s been remarkably quiet on all these teachers’ strikes is President Trump, given all how much he loves to tweet about any issue under the sun. You haven’t heard much from him about the plight of teachers across America.

NOAH KARVELIS: No, we haven’t. And I think one of the reasons why we’re not hearing from these people is because the power has shifted. The power is in the hands of the educators. And that’s an unsettling thing for people who have had power for a long time now. The power has shifted. And I think that’s why we’re seeing that silence. There’s a movement happening all across the nation. And to be frank, I don’t think those in power know exactly how to handle it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Noah Karvelis, we’ll continue to cover this wave of teacher action, strikes, walkouts, around the country. Noah is an elementary and middle school music teacher in Phoenix, one of the leaders of #RedForEd and Arizona Educators United. He helped start the teacher protests in Arizona.

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