Politics

Why Teachers Keep Walking Out

It’s not about a pay raise. It’s about protecting public education.

Teachers dressed in red march toward the capitol with signs.
Teachers march toward the capitol on April 26 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Arizona teachers again gathered en masse at the state capitol building on Wednesday in what is now the fifth day of a statewide walkout. Some stood outside to remind legislators of their presence—and of their absence from schools. Others waited inside the capitol building for news as the Legislature tried to finalize a budget that would try to subdue their anger.

The teachers, wearing red, have shown up in numbers surprising even after the wave of teacher demonstrations in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Colorado. Last Thursday, more than 50,000 people marched through downtown Phoenix to demand wage increases and increases in school funding to bring them back to pre-recession levels. On Wednesday afternoon, leaders of the movement asked teachers to return again on Thursday when the Legislature failed to pass a budget.

Slate spoke with several of the teachers who participated in the walkout to learn why they were willing to step away from the classroom and what they hoped for their schools. One teacher, 23-year-old music teacher Noah Karvelis, is a leader of the movement and has been accused by conservative media and a state Republican representative of being a political operative. (“These are deliberate misconceptions constructed by opponents because we’re bringing change,” he said.) Another, Beth Maloney, was Arizona’s teacher of the year in 2014. A third, Brandi Rasmussen, missed her son’s first steps while waiting to testify before the House.

These conversations have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: I know the leaders of the movement have put forward several demands. Which element of the walkout do you care most about?

Beth Maloney, fifth-grade teacher in the West valley of Phoenix: I don’t think any of us would be out here day after day if it was just about teacher pay. We’re not that passionate about it.
It’s really about raising budget levels.

Liz Schley, AP government and politics teacher at Basha High School in Chandler: For me, it’s sustainable funding. Finding a funding source that’s going to help schools as a whole for the long term. Not just short-term things.

Britt Yvonne James, 10th-grade English teacher at Copper Canyon High School in Glendale: I’m a conservative at heart, but they need to do something in writing that will be sustainable.

Abel Hoyos, biology teacher at Maryvale High School in Phoenix: I have three daughters.
How come the other states are getting $16,000 or $12,000 per student, and we have a little bit less than $5,000? We as teachers decided to take action, because we think that it’s unfair, the amount of money the government is spending for the kids.

Colin Miller, seventh-grade social studies teacher at Montebello School in Phoenix: The toll that budget cuts and lack of funding has put on this—it’s bare-bones. I’m begging my legislators to fund schools. It’s got to be better than this for the kids, because they can’t even speak for themselves yet.

How would you personally spend more funding for your classrooms?

Juli Schexnayder, 12th-grade math teacher at Maryvale High School in Phoenix: This is the informational age. And we’re trying to do state-mandated testing with laptops 10 years old. We’re using textbooks we’ve had 10 years or more. And when we want new textbooks, we have to compete with other departments.

Schley: I want updated textbooks, because College Board doesn’t care what your state is doing. They give a test, and I need to make sure my kids are ready.

Miller: [We have] textbooks that say George W. Bush is president.

Schexnayder: Some campuses, the kids can’t sit on desks because they might fall apart. They have holes in the ceiling.

Noah Karvelis, music teacher at Tres Rios Elementary School in Tolleson: A lot of times, educators are sitting in leaky classrooms, with no paper towels in the room. Students are not in a setting where they can be successful.

How do you deal with those problems now?

Schley: I started buying more things out of pocket. I wanted to be able to differentiate my instruction and do these things with my kids so that they understood the content, and a lot of that came out of my pocket. And I understood I did that freely. I wasn’t forced to. I don’t even use my AP government textbooks anymore because they’re so outdated. I just spend more time at home looking for resources. I think last year, I spent around $500, which was a lean year. The first year I moved up to high school, it was about $800.

Schexnayder: I spend at least $1,000 a year on my students. I know people who spend more.

Hoyos: In biology, we have to buy plaster of Paris for experiments, to make models. A lot of times I have to buy it for myself, or I ask the kids if any of their dads work in construction.

In my family, we have six teachers. And when we have family reunion weekends, we all talk about that: “Man, we have to spend $150 on this.”

School funding is one big demand in the movement, but so is better teacher pay.

Schley: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is it’s all about a teacher raise. [My school has] to hire two new people, and I want quality people, and people who feel valued.

Miller: We have 2,000 teacher positions [open in Arizona]. The reason people aren’t moving here is the salary is so low. We could fill those classrooms with teachers who are qualified and who want to teach.

James: Our school was not able to fill eight permanent teaching positions because we didn’t have enough applicants. Kids can’t learn from substitute teachers. We need learning strategies, mediation, we need certified teachers to go through programs. Not Teach for America, with three weeks of training. That’s not sustainable for kids.

Hoyos: We had a specific salary in 2008, and we have seen increments of increase in $100, $200 a year. It was frustrating, because you don’t see salary increments according to the increments of cost of living.

I’ll be 53 next month, and I have another seven years to retire. And you need to retire with the highest possible salary in order to retire in a decent way. I think we deserve a high-quality retirement without having to think about how we are going to pay insurance or without having to travel to Mexico for dental. Why do we have to do that when we gave this country the best years of our life?

Brandi Rasmussen, 10th-grade English and newspaper teacher at Chandler High School: I’ve been [at the school] six years. I have a master’s. My take-home pay is still not enough to afford rent and utilities for an apartment in Chandler. My husband totally supports me, even though it means living paycheck to paycheck.

Miller: The solution for the government [has been] to lower certification requirements. So you get people who don’t know what they’re getting into and quit in a month or so. So our kids need a math teacher, and you have a sub rotating in eight, nine months in a year.

Now teachers are becoming counselors as well, becoming therapists. My counselor, he has to worry about 500 kids. That’s a daunting case load, but that’s all we can afford. It would benefit us to have a social worker. It would benefit [the students] for my colleagues to not wear so many hats—and to have trained professionals, somebody who could really check in day to day and measure growth.

Maloney: We have kids with severe trauma, emotional needs. I’m not trained to help them. We’ve just stripped all the positions away and left everything on shoulders on teachers, while loading them up with more and more diverse students with diverse needs.

What made you decide to be a part of this?

Karvelis: In the wake of West Virginia, I think everyone looked around and said, “It’s our turn to do something.”

Schexnayder: In 2008, when we hit the recession, we understood we would need to tighten belts. We were all willing—we would stop getting pay raises if it meant our neighbor could keep their job. But we were also given promise if things got better, funding would get restored. So we’ve had enough.

The women’s movement, the science movement, the March for Our Lives movement. We have seen other people get their point across and draw attention.

Rasmussen: It was already a sea of dry trees, just waiting for one fire. It was already primed for it to be what it was.

Maloney: I know the walkout has been a huge inconvenience for families. But I keep going back to: If it’s an inconvenience, then let’s get this fixed quickly. We would much, much rather be teaching in our classroom.

How have you felt about the public response to the movement?

Schley: Walking out of my classroom was hard. On Friday, I went to the grocery store to get myself some dinner. And I had on my teacher shirt, and the governor had just talked about his proposal. And I just had my basket with me, and a gentleman said to me, “Have you gotten your lazy ass back to work now that you got your raise?”

I was exhausted from the day, and I just kind of looked over at him and kept walking. But then I cried all the whole way home. Change is hard. I cried because I’ve been holding onto this for 10 years. And I’m sad for my kids, and I’m sad for my class sizes. I want to be the best teacher I can be, but I need help. But I’m getting emails from parents being supportive.

Karvelis: There are some people who try to discredit movement, but they’re just uncomfortable because people who haven’t had power have power now.

Maloney: You’re going to hear things that it’s really partisan, and all Democrats. But truly, inside the movement, it’s absolutely bipartisan. There’s no way you’d get 50,000 people here if it was partisan.

Schley: Teaching can be really lonely, because, yes, I’m talking all day, but I’m talking to students. So it’s nice to be out [among other teachers and supporters]. Being there on Thursday and taking my daughter with me, I think that is the most supported I’ve ever felt as an educator.

Do you think this movement will have a lasting effect beyond the budget?

Hoyos: I have a lot of teacher friends who are Republicans, and they have a lot anger. That might switch the political situation for the next government.

Maloney: What I would really like is for this kind of momentum to carry over into the November election. Teachers, traditionally, unfortunately, are not voters. These teachers I’ve worked with for years have suddenly come alive. And they’re watching. And that’s what’s going to make some lasting change.