Arizona bands together to care for students during teacher strike

Communities in Arizona are preparing for a historic teacher walkout that will leave thousands of students out of school. 'Everybody is banding together and helping each other,' says one Arizona working mom. 

Matt York/AP
Highland Arts Elementary School kindergarten teacher Melissa Perez participates in a walk-in on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz., ahead of a historic statewide teacher walkout on Thursday.

From gathering gift cards, prepping boxed lunches, and opening church doors for child care, communities across Arizona are getting ready for a historic teacher walkout that could keep hundreds of thousands of students out of school indefinitely.

Working parents had a week to figure out where to send their children starting Thursday after teachers voted for an unprecedented statewide strike to push for increased education funding. While tens of thousands of educators rally this week, students will be cared for by friends, family, or community organizations.

"Everybody is banding together and helping each other," said Stephanie Barton, an exercise physiologist and Phoenix mom of two.

She will send her kids to a church while she and her husband are at work. Others are leaving their children with stay-at-home parents who offered to help or are taking advantage of day camps that have sprung up statewide.

Volunteers also are busy gathering food for students who rely on free meals at school and collecting gift cards for hourly workers who won't be paid while schools shut down.

The walkout is the climax of a teacher uprising that began weeks ago with the grass-roots #RedforEd movement that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. It has moved most recently to Colorado, where widespread teacher walkouts Thursday and Friday will shut down schools.

In Arizona, the action grew from red shirts and protests to costly demands: a 20 percent raise for teachers, about $1 billion to return school funding to pre-Great Recession levels, and increased pay for support staff, among others.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey offered teachers the pay bump by 2020, but they say his plan didn't address their other demands and are concerned, along with lawmakers, about where the money might come from.

Governor Ducey doubled down on his plan Wednesday, telling Phoenix new station KSAZ-TV that he's working with lawmakers and has proposed an additional $100 million for K-12 education that schools can use to address other demands.

"I'm hopeful we will have a vote on this this week, as soon as possible," he said.

Nearly 80 percent of teachers voted for the first-ever statewide strike, though it could put them at risk in the right-to-work state without many union protections.

A 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion says a statewide strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials. But no school district has said they would fire educators who walk out or revoke teaching certificates.

Some districts have said they will try to stay open if they have enough staff, but the walkout has left Ms. Barton and other parents scrambling. Still, she supports the action.

"Teachers deserve a raise but also to get funding for the schools to meet their basic needs," Barton said.

Other parents are frustrated.

"I would have gladly walked out to show support for our teachers, rather than the teachers walk out on our kids," said Katy Crawford of Tucson, Ariz. "I know they keep saying they're not 'abandoning' the kids, but that's what it feels like. My 11-year-old son doesn't understand their situation, and he shouldn't have to yet."

Ester Skiera, a suburban Phoenix mother of three who works from home, said she's offered to watch the daughters of two moms so they don't have to take time off work. She said education should be a priority, not a partisan issue.

"It breaks my heart that teachers are underpaid," Ms. Skiera said. "I want those teachers not to worry about second, third jobs to make ends meet so they can focus on giving their best in the classroom."

As the strike nears, a growing number of community organizations are offering free child care. The city of Phoenix is opening 24 recreation centers, churches are welcoming students, and even the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., has a day camp. Other arts, athletic, and educational organizations are offering care for a fee.

The St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance, which typically serves 7,000 daily meals after school across the Phoenix area, will boost production by 25 percent. They also are preparing boxed lunches and emergency food boxes.

Educators have been organizing food for students, too, and getting gift cards for support staff, including suburban Phoenix teacher Meredith Hey and her colleagues.

"We really do work hard to take care of our own," said Ms. Hey, calling it "a hard choice" to support the walkout. "When you put in that much time with people, they become family."

The walkout has no end date. Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the largest teacher membership group, said educators will have different opinions but won't make progress without action.

He's encouraged teachers to talk to concerned parents so they understand the fight is about students.

"What students have the opportunity to see Thursday, and potentially more days, are educators willing to put their job on the line for them," Mr. Thomas said.

Many districts that are closing their doors have said they will make up the days at year's end, which could cause problems for families with travel plans or graduating seniors.

Tyler Gray expects to attend Army basic training a few days after graduation, but if the walkout tacks on too many extra days, his plans may change.

"I'm supposed to leave for training on June 4. If the walkout goes on for as long as some people say it will, I don't go," Mr. Gray said. "I've been waiting over a year to go."

This article was reported by The Associated Press.

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