The Issues That Still Stand

The Issues That Still Stand

Emma Padelford

“Remember when some state lawmakers ran for re-election, promising to be a “champion” for education? Ancient history. That was so… three months ago. Now that the legislature’s in full swing, it’s payback time. Time to make a teacher’s job more difficult and help charter owners line their pockets even more.”

These are the words of Steve Irvin of ABC15 from a sarcastic post he uploaded about the legislature, on Facebook at the beginning of February. Since the walk out in April of last year, some educators feel the legislature has done a variety of things to make sure teachers can’t continue to rise against them. They feel legislators have been really focused more on limiting teachers, rather than focusing on education and fixing the real crises.

Kelley Fisher is a member of AEA and AEU and a secretary of the Deer Valley Education Association. The AEA, or the Arizona Educators Association is a teacher’s professional organization. The AEU, or Arizona Educators United, is the original Red for Ed group in our state. Fisher sits on the board of directors for AEA and is on the leadership team for AEU. Among these things, Fisher is also a kindergarten teacher at Las Brisas Elementary. She enjoys working at her school and has very supporting and hardworking coworkers and a great set of students this year.

“My coworkers are amazing. I have a campus full of very experienced teachers who are super dedicated to student success and meeting students’ needs on our campus,” Fisher states. “My classroom this year is a dream come true. They are 24 absolutely amazing human beings who have come so far since the beginning of the year. It’s shocking to me sometimes when I look at them. Because they came in babies and now they’re like little people already. It’s just amazing to me.”

Fisher, along with many other teachers, sees many issues that still need to be fixed. On a daily basis teachers, staff, and students are dealing with extreme circumstances because of such a low education budget. Fisher personally has taken notice of the excessive amounts of money teachers have to spend each school year and the amount of testing they must give their students.

“I think one of the biggest things that I’m seeing is teachers spending more and more money out of their own pockets every year on their classrooms,” Fisher stated. “I’m also seeing more and more being put on our plate, as far as testing the kids, and not being able to spend a full day teaching them. We spend a lot of time either testing or preparing them for a test.”

With such a large amount of participants in the walk out last April, it would seem that more problems would have been solved by now. At that time the teachers and staff walked out with 5 demands. But only one of those demands was partially met, and still stands unmet in multiple cases. In Deer Valley, teachers were given a 10% raise. This, however, did not happen across the state and, in many cases, not everyone was given this raise. This is because when the government gave the district money, there was no stipulation that they had to use it for teacher raises, which left some staff members without any raise at all. But, this doesn’t discourage the teachers; in fact, it gives them hope.

“That, I think, was a step in the right direction to start recognizing that teachers are college educated, and highly qualified to be in their classrooms and they deserve to be paid that way,” stated Fisher. “So it served for the recognition of that and it really only happened when we organize ourselves.”

So, what’s going on with the other 4 unmet demands? According to a Red for Ed flier that was passed out, Arizona still remains 49th in per student funding in the country. The teacher retention crisis still continues. There are currently 1,693 open teaching position, 22% of teaching positions are vacant, and 52.4% of positions are filled by not highly qualified individuals. And finally, the support staff of schools are still waiting for competitive wages.

Fisher stated that there have been 1,000 teachers who have left their classrooms in this school year alone. Fisher has also noticed other issues such as with bus drivers, campus needs, curriculum, and schools in need of safety repairs. In Deer Valley alone, there are around 40 bus driver openings right now. This causes a lot of problems and busses are breaking down from overuse. Fisher also mentioned that today’s curriculum is very out of date. In fact, many schools teach George H. W. Bush as the most recent president.  Finally, she mentioned that school buildings are falling apart, quite literally. She mentioned that some schools have been bug and rat infested, they have had issues with mold, and some have even had ceiling tiles fall out. Schools need to be a place where students and staff are safe and are getting the best out of their school experience, and with the current budget, this is not the case.

“When kids come to school, it should be a safe place for them. Safe from bullying and things like that. But it should also be a safe place where they know that they’re not going to get sick, they’re not going to have a ceiling tile fall on them in the middle of class, and also that they’re going to learn with current material,” Fisher said.

Back in 2008, the big recession brought a huge budget cut to Arizona’s schools. Because education was the biggest part of the state’s budget, that was the first thing that money was taken out of. In fact, education is still missing $700 million from that budget cut. Fisher said that she has students who are currently in high school, who haven’t ever had a fully funded school year.

“If we can find a way to get the funding back, we could start looking at the students and the schools. Because that should be our priority,” Fisher stated. “To me, that should be the priority of the state, to provide an education in a safe and well-built school with current curriculum and qualified teachers.”

Luckily, there is still hope with the legislators who are pro-education. Fisher states that they are working very hard with those in the schools to make sure that their 5 demands are met. These legislators signed Invest in Ed when they ran in November, promising to stand with teachers and make education a top priority.

“We’re not going to immediately have every problem fixed, but we need to start looking at which pieces we can solve and how we can move forward for the future. That within the next 5 years, let’s say, every one of our 5 demands have been met,” Fisher said.

Fisher, and many others, strongly believe that the teachers have the power to bring about change in education and have demonstrated their strength very well.

“I think we showed that last year when we had 75,000 people at the capitol in one day. So we definitely have the power, and I think that the legislature knows that, which is why we see a lot of bills coming out right now that are sort of attacking us and are trying to keep us from organizing and using our power together…They are trying to stop it,” Fisher stated.

The current goal of those who seek to prioritize education is to build up the momentum again. Fisher said that another walk out isn’t completely off the table, but that she hopes legislature can be influenced by Red for Ed before another one happens. She also stated that their goal is based on people using their power to influence their local legislatures.

“Right now, there are 2 voucher bills out that would take money from public ED,” stated Fisher. “Our hope is that by getting people involved in the process now, before it becomes part of our state law, we can influence and stop it.”

Even though the legislature said that they would help support education in their campaigns, some sort of action might need to be taken if things start to get worse.

Currently, Fisher and her group has been meeting every other Saturday to have their own PLC (Professional Learning Community) meeting, with the goal of rebuilding Red for Ed. There are many teachers who went back into their classrooms after the walk out, satisfied, because they trusted that the governor would give the 10% raise over the next 2 years. However, many teachers see his promise as just a speech and think that it doesn’t mean much. They need to see it in action, which they are hopeful will take its course in June at the end of the session. The issues are hard to ignore: unqualified teachers, safety, money, students, staff, and more. So Fisher and her team are hoping that enough public support will help bring change.

“We have to start getting people more aware that it goes way outside your own bank account,” Fisher stated. “Because right now, people are sort of happy seeing that raise in their paycheck, but it’s so much more than that.”

As Red for Ed works alongside AEU, they fight to stand up for the students and the schools. As these issues are being witnessed daily by members of the schools, the desire for change is becoming stronger. If we all stand together, we as the public can help make our education better again. By standing strong, we can restore focus on students who are the future of Arizona.