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What the Devil won't tell you

Reaction to teachers' daring walkout will show how '4Ed' this red state is

Arizona is about to see just how #RedForEd we are as teachers prepare to walk out of classrooms across the state this week.

Some 44,000 teachers have voted for a statewide walkout to start on Thursday, with just a month left in the school year. Technically, teachers don't have the right to strike. So they are rebranding it a "walkout," but the differences are semantic at best.

I believe the speed with which Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers made big-time overtures to teachers shows the public is behind giving more money to schools and in a big, big way. Striking risks shifting the issue from schools to unions and in that, Ducey could see an advantage.

The teachers, flying under the hashtag #RedForEd and prompted by the Arizona Education Network, appear to be the away team on a union field.

Arizona's tough anti-union laws carry more than just legal effect. They are political reality in every way because that's what Arizonans have wanted. Voters keep re-electing the Legislature, which continues to do what it does and that is make every effort to be the most conservative band of lawmakers in America. Arizona has little history or heritage with organized labor that would inspire solidarity.

Want proof? Arizona ranks 49th in the country in per-pupil K-12 spending and lawmakers figure they have had a mandate to do so. The Arizona Education Association has been little more than pebble under a locomotive chugging to that reality.

A backlash against starving school budgets is to be expected. What teachers are asking for is a decisive win: here, now and all at once. That's always a lot to ask in politics. If it works it's a new day. If it fails, the status quo will stand vindicated.

Districts in a box

First, let's game this out and see that Ducey has a headache on his hands.

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This labor action is different than garden-variety strikes because it's not a move directly against management. It's a move against state leadership and and one that's not exactly provided for under state law. Just who is going to do exactly what about it?

Teachers in Arizona work for the school districts and some districts are more hard-line than others. The teachers aren't Ducey's to fire but he and Legislative leadership are whom teachers are negotiating with to get more money. So what the hell are the districts supposed to do? Do they fire the teachers because the state won't deliver? They can. It would send a Ronald Reagan-style, PATCO-shaped message right in the face of workers.

If they don't, they'll render meaningless the state prohibition against strikes by public employees. If they do, they'd be left to hire tens of thousands of teachers prior to August, when the new school year starts. That's where the strike gets interesting and ironic.

Where are those teachers going to come from? It's not like the districts can pay competitively to recruit teachers from elsewhere. Are they going to steal teachers from Arizona charter schools? That's just cannibalizing faculty and screwing the very schools the Republicans running things want to see succeed. Last summer, Vail Unified School District Superintendent Calvin Baker was sending recruiters to the other side of the world to find teachers, even though there are thousands of certified teachers living in this state but not working in our classrooms. Funny how that happens when you don't pay the going rate.

I'm sure you could get unemployed journalists to teach your kid trigonometry but trust me, you don't want that.

Public schools aren't like public welfare programs. The middle class may never come in contact with the Department of Economic Security and, if not, they'll never know what the state's paring back of those benefits means. That's just life for people who do need it. Parents know schools are broke, though. They see it every day, when it makes moms' and dads' lives harder. Mom and dad may want someone to blame. Why not start at the top? Ducey's name is on the ballot this fall.

A strike would be a double headache for Ducey because he could get blamed if replacement hires are a slow go. The last thing a leader wants is blame for something he or she is powerless to correct.

Throw in some quasars

Teachers' demands carry a $5 billion price tag on a $10 billion state budget. Earlier this month, teachers were asking for the moon. Now they're asking for the moon, a couple gas giants, a galaxy cluster and a few quasars. Perhaps that's how they get the moon, by asking for more.

They want $1 billion in school funding restored after it was slashed since the start of the Great Recession, and no new tax cuts until those levels are achieved; competitive pay for educational support staff; a 20 percent raise for teachers to go with a new salary structure that rewards them advanced degrees and more experience.

Seriously, have they met the Arizona Legislature? As a general rule, negotiations go nowhere when one side demands the other side can only surrender without condition.

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There's a reason savvy conservatives don't attack teachers or public schools. They attack teachers unions and "union bosses." Union bosses is a not so subtle conjuring of the stereotype that behind every union raise is a Gotti chewing a stogie and slapping down Franklins.

Voters may truly agree with the teachers' demands but that doesn't mean they support the means teachers use to secure them. Public opinion is a slippery thing. It's a natural defense against getting duped. Large numbers seem like they are throwing in with a broad concept but watch for an easy escape hatch to getting sucked into dogma.

This can very easily translate into voters splitting the difference. "I think teachers need to make more money but they they don't have a right to strike. They need to get back to work and follow the rules."

A matter of time

Let's bring back the fact that school is out for summer in a month. If this big walkout has an expiration date, then it's easy to break. The Tucson City Council stood on the sidelines and let a Sun Tran strike last longer than that in 2015.

The danger is school funding gets put on the back burner if the teacher's gamble comes up snake eyes and invites a backlash.

On the other hand, if they want to push the strike to the beginning of next year or restart it in late September in time for early voting, then it'd have some juice.

The bold move could muck up the election season for Republicans (or Democrats) depending on how long it lasts.

Hey! hey! uh oh?

Moving parts abound in the teachers' daring ploy, which is why I recommended a constitutional amendment to tie a funding source for schools that no Legislature could rejigger. Sure, gathering 225,000 signatures needed to force a ballot question is a chore and raising the $5 million needed to sell the plan would be hard.

Teachers have the numbers and the money to make the whole effort an inside job. If 44,000 voted for a walkout then they could each get 10 signatures and box one gets checked. If those 44,000 donate $10 per month to campaign for the amendment, then that's $7 million by November 2020. If the public is behind education funding then the public can vote that way un-distracted by a strike.

Teachers chose to go in another direction and "hey, hey; ho, ho" their way to glory and that's fine I guess. Similar moves have worked in Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Ultimately, they aren't asking Ducey and the Legislature to bend, they are asking the public to break conservative state leaders of their habits. The strike is a gut check for the whole state. What are we made of? Has the state changed over the years or is the Arizona what it's always been?

That's a hell of a question to ask.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and has worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you what the devil won’t.


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Melina Zuniga/Cronkite News

Arizona teachers, skeptical that Gov. Doug Ducey can deliver on his promise of 20 percent raises for teachers, voted last week to walk out in protest.

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