Arizona teachers are organizing a day of protest Wednesday to highlight low pay and what they say is the failure of the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey to make major efforts to boost their compensation.
The grass-roots effort sprang up over the weekend when a teacher in a west Phoenix school district started a Facebook group called Arizona Teachers United . The closed group created by music teacher Noah Karvelis had grown to more than 7,700 members by midday Tuesday.
The group is pushing for teachers and students to wear red to school.
The Arizona effort developed after West Virginia teachers started a nine-day strike that was settled Tuesday after that state's Legislature agreed to a 5 percent pay boost.
One of the moderators of the group is Dylan Wegela, a social studies teacher in the Cartwright School District in the Maryvale neighborhood of west Phoenix. He said the five group moderators met for the first time on Monday night after finding each other on Facebook.
"What we're trying to do is organize educators in a way that really hasn't been done before, from the grassroots up, allowing all educators into the group," Wegela said during a phone interview on his lunch period. "We're organizing for statewide action - that has not been decided yet, except for the Red for Ed, which is Wednesday."
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said he's seen increasing interest in a teacher strike. He said he suggested to Karvelis recently that a group action like wearing red would be a good way to gauge teachers' sentiments and the potential willingness for a statewide job action.
"It's a great indicator - if two wear red people probably aren't upset - people probably aren't agitated," Thomas said. "But if you get your whole school site — I don't know what the magic number is, 80 percent? If everybody shows up in red that may be a good indicator that people are ready to take a larger action."
An Arizona attorney general opinion from 1971 said there's no statewide law banning a teacher strike, but nevertheless found that a statewide teacher strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.
Wegela said a strike isn't on the agenda for now.
"I'm hesitant to say it's out of the realm of possibility, but the organization needs to be there and there needs to be support for it," Wegela said.
Arizona teacher pay is among the lowest in the nation despite a 1 percent increase approved by the Legislature last year and an infusion of cash from a ballot measure called Proposition 123 pushed by Ducey in 2016 to settle a lawsuit over the Legislature's cuts to education filed by school districts.
According to figures compiled by the National Education Association, the average Arizona teacher earned slightly more than $47,000 in 2016, the seventh lowest in the nation.
Districts used some of the Proposition 123 money for teacher salaries, but much was also used for operations and maintenance.
Another 1 percent pay boost is in Ducey's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, but Wegela said what's been provided so far is far from what is needed.
"It's not going to keep teachers - we have a massive teacher shortage," he said. "It's not going to be good for teachers, it's not going to be good for educators or students."
Teachers in another low-teacher pay state, Oklahoma, are also organizing for possible job action.