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Arizona teachers devastated, as state supreme court blocks ballot initiative to fund education

“We are stunned, we are shocked. We didn’t anticipate this for even a second.”

An english teacher at Barry Goldwater High School, cheers in support of the #REDforED movement during a rally in front of the State Capitol on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
An english teacher at Barry Goldwater High School, cheers in support of the #REDforED movement during a rally in front of the State Capitol on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Arizona teachers advocating for higher salaries and increased education funding were dealt a devastating blow Wednesday, when the state Supreme Court voted to get rid of a ballot initiative that would have raised taxes on the wealthy in order to fund education.

The court said in an order that petition signers who supported the “Invest in Education” initiative were not told that the plan, in addition to raising taxes for individuals making more than $250,000 a year, would also do away with the practice of adjusting income tax brackets for inflation, making for potentially confusing wording for voters.

“We are stunned, we are shocked. We didn’t anticipate this for even a second,” music teacher and organizer Noah Kervalis said in a video posted late Wednesday to the closed Facebook group, Arizona Educators United. “Something that I don’t frankly even have words for right now other than just complete frustration … this has been taken away from educators, communities, and, most importantly, our students. That’s the hardest thing for me right now.”

The ruling comes months after thousands of Arizona teachers and union activists went on strike for almost a week in the spring, calling for a 20 percent raise, an end to new tax cuts, competitive pay for educational support staff, and a return to 2008-level education funding. The strikes ended in early May, when Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed legislation that granted teachers an average raise of 9 percent, followed by 5 percent for the next two years. It also granted $400 million in education funding to account for recession-era cuts.

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Since then, teachers have sought other means of acquiring additional funding for their schools. Arizona teachers spent the hot summer months gathering more than enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. If enacted, it would have raised nearly $700 million for education per year. Supporters of the measure argued that it also would have increased teacher salaries 20 percent by 2020.

“People sweated all summer long collecting these signatures. We knew that the voters would support this,” organizer Joe Thomas said in the same Facebook video. “People should not feel defeated. This is a dirty low blow, absolutely, by the governor and we need to make sure we stand up stronger for our students that we ever have … Don’t mourn, organize.”

Ducey has attempted to push back against the teachers’ #RedForEd movement since it began in April, dismissing the protests as a “political movement” and accusing educators of “playing games.”

“What I don’t want to do is get into these political operatives’ political circus,” he said at the time. “Why would I sit down with someone who wants to play games?”

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As The New York Times reported, teachers viewed the court ruling to eliminate the ballot initiative as the result of Ducey’s court-packing. In 2016, Ducey signed a measure that allowed him to add two judges to the Supreme Court, increasing the number from five to seven.

The governor will face off against Democrat David Garcia, an education professor and military veteran, in November. Garcia supports the Invest in Education initiative. In what could be a harbinger of things to come, Oklahoma voters on Tuesday ousted six incumbent state legislators who had voted against tax increases to fund education.

Arizona Educators United organizer Kelley Wendland Fisher said in a Facebook video late Thursday evening that teachers should continue to fight.

“What we’re asking is for every staff at every campus to come together and have a meeting … as to what you feel your next steps should be,” she said. “We want to listen to you … We want the same thing to happen that happened last spring. We want the people to make the decision for our direction. And the people are you.”

A nationwide day of action is planned for Tuesday. Teachers, unions, and activists are expected to show solidarity with the #RedForEd movement by donning a red shirt, as educators in Washington state continue their strikes and Los Angeles teachers prepare for a potential strike.