Fight School Cuts in Arizona!

In January, Arizona’s governor threatened to pull $1.15 billion worth of education funding from the entire state if the legislature didn’t raise the Aggregate Expenditure Limit known as “AEL.” The AEL is a cap on education spending based on the aggregate expenditure of Arizona’s school districts. Conveniently for the ruling class, this does not apply to private and charter schools and only affects public schools. This would have been a disaster for many districts. Some schools may not have been able to remain open, leaving significant portions of the working class with no access to education for their children, especially in rural areas.

While the AEL is peculiar to Arizona, there are many such spending limits on public education throughout the United States. This puts educational funding squarely in the hands of the capitalist politicians in state and local governments. This gives the likes of Arizona Governor Doug Ducey a Sword of Damocles to hang over teachers’ heads. This is all the more cynical when we consider that a Republican-controlled state House, Senate, and executive branch threatened to cut funding to schools if they didn’t raise a funding cap they themselves control and have shown little desire to increase. In the end, the Senate and House passed resolutions to bypass the AEL altogether.

AZ governor Ducey
Governor Ducey used trickery to make it appear is if teachers were receiving a larger raise than they were. / Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

But this only means that another budget fight is guaranteed—we can expect another showdown sometime after the midterm elections. This constant state of worry and panic over education spending is, ultimately, an example of the ruling class’s ultimate goal: maintaining a two-tiered educational system where the wealthy have full and uninhibited access to education while the working class is left to constantly defend against crippling budget cuts and reductions of service.

In situations like this, it can seem hopeless. Is the only way out of the swamp to hope for the good graces of one of the ruling-class parties to “come to the rescue?” Not at all! On the basis of class independence and militant struggle, the working class can fight back and win against the capitalists and their politicians. Even in an ostensibly conservative state like Arizona, a unified coalition of teachers—both within the state and outside of it—proved that another way is possible to ensure full funding of our public school system.

“Red for Ed”

In the spring of 2018, over 50,000 Arizona teachers came out as part of the broader “Red for Ed” movement. Like other teacher’s unions and strike actions around the nation, they demanded higher wages, safer working conditions, and a return to full educational funding commensurate with pre-2008 levels for Pre-K through twelfth grade. The movement represented a qualitative shift in class consciousness as teachers from all over the country came together and made demands as a coordinated block. Red for Ed proved that even in so-called “red” states like Arizona and West Virginia, the ruling class can do little to stop a wave of working-class struggle when our class interests and forces are brought to bear.

red for ed AZ
When teachers are ready to fight back, they will be armed with valuable experience and lessons from previous battles like Red for Ed and Prop. 208. / Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

With the walkout led by Arizona Educators United (AEU) at the heart of the strike, Arizona’s educational system ground to a halt. Before the strike, the legislature was openly hostile and unwilling to negotiate. Suddenly, it was forced to respond to the crisis of its own making. As in many places across the country, Arizona’s ruling class offered striking teachers a modest concession. Dubbed “20 by 2020,” the plan was to raise teachers’ salaries by 20% by 2020. Of course, for this to happen, “20 by 2020” would need to be passed by both the state House and Senate. Nonetheless, AEU accepted these concessions—even before formal approval by the legislature—and the strike ended after one week.

The limits of concessions

While “20 by 2020” was better than anything that had been offered previously, in the end, it would serve as an example of how concessions provided by the ruling class are both limited in scope and duration—they give with one hand only what they can take back with the other in the future.

Immediately, the governor used trickery and obfuscation to boost numbers and pretend like they were doing something while, in reality, doing very little. While he did increase teacher’s pay, it included a raise already given in FY2018 to bring the total raise in FY2019 to “10%.” They would then increase teachers’ pay by 5% for the next two years. But how were they going to raise revenue to return to pre-2008 levels? Teachers would have to work to get Prop. 208 passed to raise taxes to recover revenue. What resulted was a lengthy battle to stop Prop. 208 in its tracks, and the proposition was eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in August of 2021.

In other words, “20 by 2020” was never fully enacted, and the ruling class had no intention of ever doing so. And once rampant inflation is accounted for, the gains of Red for Ed have been wiped out. This is what happens when the rank-and-file teachers have not been mobilized, and the union leaders place their faith in electoralism and capitalist political parties. Even if the Democrats in Arizona had won the Senate and House, we would have likely seen a similar result.

The pandemic has weighed especially heavily on teachers and students. It is unclear whether either the union leadership or the rank and file have the will to organize a coordinated fightback at this time. Mass struggles such as the one in 2018 consume lots of energy, and it can take some time for the head of steam to build up again.But this much is clear: if the anticipated cuts come to pass, the working class will suffer greatly. Layoffs will result in many wage earners losing their jobs, including teachers, support, and maintenance staff. Students will have less or no access to needed educational materials and safe schools. Parents will lose an essential tool for helping to raise their children. And yet another generation of children will be kept in artificial ignorance to serve as an easy to exploit layer of the working class begging for scraps from the ruling class.

red for my students
“20 by 2020” was never fully enacted, and when inflation is accounted for, the gains of “red for ed” have been wiped out. / Image Gage Skidmore via Flickr

But history wastes nothing, and it is only a matter of time before teachers and the broader working class are ready to enter into mass struggle once again. Given the crisis of the system, we have no alternative.

Fight back with militant class struggle!

When teachers are ready to fight back, they will be armed with valuable experience and lessons from previous battles like Red for Ed and Prop. 208. However, to truly be successful in struggle, we need a farsighted leadership that does not have illusions in the capitalists’ political parties. What teachers and other education workers can attain depends on their unity and the strength of their forces, along with parents, students, and the rest of the labor movement.

The leadership of the teachers’ unions should demand full and immediate funding for all public schools with additional increases tied to inflation. They should insist that the 20% raise be based on 2018 wages, with full adjustments for inflation on top of that.

Everyone deserves the best education, not just the wealthy few! It is not the job of the workers or the union leaders to provide funding for education, but they can point to the enormous wealth held by the richest few in Arizona and across the country. In places like Arizona, tying funding to property taxes and other regressive taxes like sales taxes should be abolished. Ultimately, the government in Arizona should get the resources for quality education for all from the ruling class. The wealthiest 1% of the US population own 44% of all the financial assets.

The government should also nationalize charter and private schools, fold them into the public school system and redistribute their ample resources to create a unified education system to be run democratically in the majority’s interests. There should be elected boards representing teachers, other school workers, parents, and student representatives at the high school level. And if the capitalist parties and their government can’t accomplish all of this, we need to fight for a class-independent party and workers’ government that can.

While the immediate concern is the Republican regime of Doug Ducey, teachers in the other states are also facing similar attacks. Education is a national issue, and the federal government should significantly increase funding for public schools everywhere. In this effort, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association should launch a national campaign to fully fund education. As we did in 2018, teachers need to band together at a national level, led by the NEA and AFT, to bring about the required changes to public education.

This is what the country’s trade union leaders should be fighting for. On the basis of mass mobilizations and coordinated strike action, real victories are possible. But as long as we live under capitalism, we will never fully solve the problems and achieve real equality in the education system. Ultimately, the fight to bring about a new high-quality, democratic and unified educational system will not be possible under the limits of capitalism. It must be tied to the need for a mass working-class socialist party and a workers’ government, which can finally make quality, free, and universal education a reality.

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