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Nearly every school district in Arizona was forced to close, and they remain closed. In Arizona and other states where teachers have recently gone on strike, pay is a central issue: the average American teacher earns five per cent less than he did in In Arizona, the average teacher salary fell from fifty-three thousand to forty-seven thousand dollars in that time.

But the protests are about more than salaries. In recent years, educators have been blamed by politicians and parents for an array of social problems, from bankrupt municipal pensions to low graduation rates in poor neighborhoods. Standardized testing has constrained teacher autonomy and creativity, and charter and private schools have competed more aggressively for government funds.

The strikes are thus partly about reclaiming a sense of professional pride and middle-class stature. Few would dispute that the Arizona schools are in crisis. Per-student spending has fallen fourteen per cent in the past decade, and some two thousand classrooms have no permanent instructors.


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Flag High, where the Askews work, has had trouble recruiting and retaining talent. Two years ago, I hired a woman from New York.

In a paper ballot organized by the Arizona Education Association union and the Arizona Educators United Facebook group, an overwhelming majority of teachers voted to walk out. They worried about their students—the ones without proper clothes, the ones in foster care, and the ones who constantly asked about food—but were in full support of the Red for Ed movement.

Tracey Carleton, who teaches second, third, and fourth graders with emotional disabilities, lives paycheck to paycheck and drives an old car that lacks air-conditioning, which many Arizonans consider a necessity. Jenifer Vetter, a single mom who went to night school to earn her graduate teaching license, had decided to quit and resume her first career, as a dental-office manager. Over the same period, nationally, the number of college students majoring in education declined by fourteen per cent. The Askews, too, fantasize about making a change—teaching in a better-paying state or abroad.

I heard similar things from teachers across Arizona. Though they felt that their profession was a calling, and harbored no fantasies of wealth or prestige, they had gone into their careers expecting a degree of respect and compensation that had not materialized. Yet the transformation was incomplete. Perhaps on account of their advanced degrees, the Askews, like most teachers I spoke with, identify as workers but not as working-class. The distinction, though, seems increasingly thin. Another asked what it meant for Arizona to be a right-to-work state.

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Mitch could have launched into the technicalities of union dues and the National Labor Relations Act, but he instead talked about power, and why it was useful for individual workers to band together. The students had just researched and drawn murals to illustrate an infamous event that took place a century ago in Bisbee, Arizona. In , twelve hundred miners, most of whom were Mexican, went on strike with the Industrial Workers of the World.

In response, their corporate employers, with the help of local police and vigilantes, kidnapped and deported the men to New Mexico. Would white-collar educators, in , have better results? I heard similar things from teachers across Arizona. Though they felt that their profession was a calling, and harbored no fantasies of wealth or prestige, they had gone into their careers expecting a degree of respect and compensation that had not materialized. Yet the transformation was incomplete.

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Perhaps on account of their advanced degrees, the Askews, like most teachers I spoke with, identify as workers but not as working-class. The distinction, though, seems increasingly thin. Related: Can educating kids about unions prepare them for the future of work?

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Two days before the walkout, teachers and support staff from across the Flagstaff Unified School District, two hours north of Phoenix, gathered for an information and strategy session. Everyone took home a Red for Ed yard sign. Another asked what it meant for Arizona to be a right-to-work state. Mitch could have launched into the technicalities of union dues and the National Labor Relations Act, but he instead talked about power, and why it was useful for individual workers to band together.

The students had just researched and drawn murals to illustrate an infamous event that took place a century ago in Bisbee, Arizona. In , twelve hundred miners, most of whom were Mexican, went on strike with the Industrial Workers of the World. In response, their corporate employers, with the help of local police and vigilantes, kidnapped and deported the men to New Mexico. Would white-collar educators, in , have better results?

Every teacher said the same thing: “This is not about the raise. It’s about the kids.”

Would the walkout lift their pay and status, or sour the public to their concerns? For now, at least, the teachers appear to enjoy broad support: a recent NPR poll suggests that most Americans, across party lines, approve of pay increases, union membership and the right to strike for teachers.

On Thursday, the first day of the strike, the Askew family — Mitch, Jennie, and their two kids — marched with other Flag High teachers in Phoenix. Around noon, they reached the state capitol building and wove through thousands of fellow-protesters before settling onto a patch of grass, beneath an enormous red umbrella. They listened to speeches being delivered from a nearby stage, until the unrelenting sun cut the program short. The rally slowly disbanded around two p. The Askews looked defeated — or tired. They could see now that the walkout and budget fight would continue for many more days.

He and Jennie returned to their car, buckled in their kids and prepared for the two-hour drive back to Flagstaff. Though the district was closed for business, teachers had agreed to show up for field trips, sports-team events and junior prom. S ign up for our newsletter. Join us today. At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter.

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