Carrie Brown, her son, Peter, and about 150 other parents and education advocates walked through the Arizona Capitol on Monday with postcards in hand.
The postcards, addressed to House Speaker J.D. Mesnard and Senate President Steve Yarbrough, expressed opposition to a batch of controversial education bills. They also included requests for the Republican leaders to allow additional public comment on the education components of the proposed state budget.
Such activism from parents and teachers has become a near-constant at the Capitol during the past two legislative sessions. But their efforts this year — aided in part by left-leaning groups that routinely oppose Republican legislation, such as the Arizona Education Association and Arizona School Boards Association — appear to have gathered numbers and a greater sense of urgency driven by frustration over the direction of public education.
As education has consumed the attention of the public and state lawmakers, parents and educators are working to influence the state budget and other legislation they say will affect their families for years to come.
They have waited through hours of hearings to give their brief two cents on a laundry list of education proposals — from more recess time to a full expansion of a school-voucher program. Hundreds of others have flooded state lawmakers with phone calls and emails.
Julie Cieniawski, a public teacher in Scottsdale and board member of the AEA, said some of the parents and teachers who showed up at the Capitol on Monday feel bamboozled. She certainly does, she said.
“I feel like we were used by our state leaders last year,” she said, referring to the ballot measure known as Proposition 123. “We were used by our governor to come to the table and have input in devising Prop. 123 with the hope that there was a future in really, truly funding, and having as a top priority, more funding for public schools.
“I’m so tired of leaders using us as their tool to get what they want, but then not giving us the same support and dignity,” she said. She added that when she learned the governor proposed a four-tenths of a percent raise for teachers each year over five years, she “thought it was a typo.”
Ducey’s spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, noted that the governor has outlined many new steps to improve education funding. He noted that about $114 million of the governor’s proposed $170 million in spending on new initiatives is for public education.
And several education groups have praised Ducey’s budget proposal for focusing on worthy causes such as low-income students and rural schools.
“The arithmetic demonstrates a priority to K-12,” Scarpinato said. “The governor made a commitment in his State of the State we will increase K-12 education every year he is governor, over and above inflation.”
Last week, more than 300 people rallied at Central High School, where they received tutoring on how to navigate the state Legislature’s public-comment process.
On Monday, students and their parents used their day off from school to wield signs at the state Capitol and deliver their postcards to the state’s legislative gatekeepers.
One sign read, “Teachers are heroes, not crybabies,” in reference to a public spat between the leader of the state’s top business group and the state’s teachers union.
Brown, a mother of two in the Kyrene School District, said she’s sensed more parents and advocates are involved this year than in the past. She and others said they’re frustrated by limited opportunities for public comment, especially on the controversial plan to expand school vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona students.
“It has felt futile to even advocate with facts,” Brown said of her experience testifying in committees.
“But this year I decided to come back out and try again because I’ve connected with parents and teachers all over the state that I didn’t know before. I think we felt kind of silent in our little school area and unable to affect much change. So I’m hopeful maybe now we can do something more.”
Teacher: People are ‘starting to wake up’
Christine Marsh, the 2016 Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year, said parents, grandparents and educators are fed up with what they view as the perpetual underfunding of schools and unmet promises to students, and some of Ducey’s education-funding proposals outlined in his January State of the State address.
Marsh said Monday that the level of involvement is driven by people who are “starting to wake up and are feeling that there are forces” that want to “dismantle public education.” She said they are especially concerned about Republicans’ efforts to pass the school-voucher legislation that would allow all public students to use public money for private-school tuition by the 2020-2021 school years.
Marsh, an English teacher at Chaparral High School, advocated for passage of Prop. 123, the 2016 ballot measure that helped resolve a lawsuit over the states’ underfunding of education. The governor promised passage of the ballot measure — which added $3.5 billion in funding over the next decade, but provided less than what the schools were initially owed — would be the “first step” toward resolving funding issues.
Ducey raised expectations with his State of the State, where he pledged to push for higher teacher pay, for all-day kindergarten in low-income schools, and to erase the student-loan debt of some teachers. The governor casts his plan, along with money from Prop. 123, as a major cash infusion for schools.
But his budget, in the opinion of many teachers, constituted a meager commitment to them in particular, Marsh said.
Marsh and Michelle Doherty, the 2017 AEF Teacher of the Year, delivered a letter to Ducey’s office last month asking him to restructure his proposal to give a more significant pay raise to teachers.
Marsh said Monday that she and Doherty, a teacher in the Osborn School District, had yet to hear from Ducey’s office.
“If his second step is an 80 cents-a-day raise for teachers, then that’s not acceptable,” she said. “I think a lot of them are really demoralized. They are overwhelmed, overworked, stressed out, and then you get someone like (Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry President and CEO) Glenn Hamer calling us crybabies. … That hits hard.”
Hamer was quoted in a Capitol insider newsletter as saying “the teachers unions are out there like a bunch of crybabies screaming about the difficulty of getting additional pay to teachers.” The comment was made as part of his criticism of the Arizona Education Association and other education groups for supporting the minimum-wage ballot measure voters passed in November.
The tension surrounding school funding is evident in the overflow crowds at committee hearings, where parents and lawmakers have clashed over the voucher legislation, as well as a proposal parents said would jeopardize $211 million in desegregation funding.
Parents at the Capitol on Monday accused Republican lawmakers in the education committees of preferential scheduling in the two hearings on the school-voucher expansion. Those parents said they waited more than five hours to testify against the House version of the bill and that, once it was time to speak, they were given less time than supporters of the legislation.
“What we hope is the legislators remember that each of us is a voter and that when they choose us over a lobbyist or a party line, we remember that at the ballot box,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, a Tempe mom and ASU professor.
Ducey defends vision for education
Ducey, who says he wants to be known as the “Education Governor,” has struggled at times to sell his teacher-pay proposal.
During a Feb. 6 appearance on KTAR’s “Mac & Gaydos” radio program, for example, the governor engaged in a lengthy, testy exchange when asked to explain why he was proposing four-tenths of a percent raise each year over five years. One host told him teachers say “they’re highly insulted” by the raise.
Ducey repeatedly said the hosts were “misrepresenting” the amount of money teachers would receive, even though they were accurate in describing it as 0.4 percent a year. He grew increasingly frustrated, saying the hosts should take into account money schools received under Prop. 123, adding that “many teacher raises have already happened” through school districts.
“If teachers aren’t receiving a raise, they should be talking to their supervisor or talking to their principal,” he said. “We want to see all teachers get a raise.”
A host countered that Ducey’s proposed raise works out to about $2 a week. The governor shot back, “Did you just not hear about the hundreds of millions of dollars … that have been put forward” through Prop. 123?
The governor stuck to his message, adding later, “I’m dealing with finite dollars … no one wants to see those dollars happen more than I.”
Ducey’s spokesman, Scarpinato, said Monday that the administration welcomes the public conversation. He noted it is not typical for a line-item for teacher raises to be included in a budget plan, and encouraged Arizonans concerned about the issue to contact their local school boards, superintendents and principals to encourage other funds from Prop. 123 and inflation funding be used for teacher pay.
He, too, noted that “many districts” have directed Prop. 123 funds to be used for teacher raises.
Scarpinto said Ducey’s office got positive feedback from education advocates in January when the governor unveiled his budget proposal.
“What’s really positive about this discussion is that here we are having a conversation about how we’re going to spend more money on education,” he said. “That’s a positive thing for our state, a positive thing for kids and teachers. That’s a real shift from where the state had been.”
Education remains at the top of voter minds, said pollster Paul Bentz.
“A large majority believe schools are underfunded, even after Prop. 123. It continues to be a big concern in the state, and it’s been that way since pretty much the 2014 election,” he said.
Generally, he said, his survey of voter attitudes have found concern over education-funding levels, quality, availability and vouchers.
In his most recent survey of 500 voters in January, he said 33 percent said education is the issue they are most concerned about, followed by immigration and border issues at 25 percent.
That much was reaffirmed Monday, when Sharon Kirsch, her husband and her daughter spent part of their day at the Capitol.
Kirsch, a Phoenix charter school parent, made a sign for the occasion that read, “Democracy needs public education.”
“I think the state of Arizona needs to be reminded of that,” Kirsch said.
-Originally published by Ricardo Cano and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Arizona Republic on 2/20/17 at 7:29 pm