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Arizona Teachers Threatening To Strike If They Don't Get A Pay Raise


Teachers in Arizona are demanding a 20 percent pay increase and increased public education funding. If they don't get any action, they say they will strike. Arizona teachers are among the lowest-paid teachers in the country. They're following the example of states like West Virginia, where teachers went on strike and did get a pay increase and Oklahoma, where teachers are also threatening to walk out.

Noah Karvelis is a music teacher and an organizer of Arizona Educators United. They're a coalition of teachers that led a march on the Arizona State Capitol earlier this week. Thanks for being here, Noah.

NOAH KARVELIS: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

CHANG: So why do you think teachers need a 20 percent raise?

KARVELIS: Well, if you look at the numbers across the region here, we're not even competitive with neighboring states like New Mexico and Utah and Colorado. They're making $10,000, $15,000 more. So that's why we have a teacher crisis here and so many empty classrooms. So that 20 percent number, it doesn't quite get us neck-and-neck with them, but it at least puts us in the game.

CHANG: Well, can you point out some examples of how this has impacted your own classroom, this lack of funding?

KARVELIS: Yeah, definitely. In my first couple days teaching here in Arizona, the art teacher quit her job because it was just too much work, too little pay, and she was neglected and walked out. So the teacher's gone, but the students are still there. And those students have to go somewhere, right?

CHANG: Right.

KARVELIS: So what happens is they go into other people's classrooms. And so my first year I was teaching sometimes 40 students at a time, 45 students at a time because we don't have enough teachers to fill those positions.

CHANG: So I'm just trying to picture this. If you have 40-something music students in your classroom, how does that work? How do you actually execute a lesson plan?

KARVELIS: Well, you have 40 eighth-graders in your classroom and you have seven pianos. The math just doesn't add up. There's no way to reach those kids. Every day you're going home and you're just feeling like, I failed. I failed these students. And that's honestly the worst possible feeling any teacher could ever have.

CHANG: Republican Governor Doug Ducey has said that he is sticking to a 1 percent pay raise. But even if he did accept your demand of 20 percent, realistically, how quickly do you think the state can pull that kind of money together? You're talking about enacting new tax laws.

KARVELIS: I'm leaving that up to him. He needs to do something here because the fact of the matter is teachers can't continue to work here. They can't continue to live here. And so we have generations of Arizona citizens and students who have not received a proper education. And we have generations of teachers who have been pushed out of the state. So I have full confidence that if he wants to act on this, he can. And he can do it very quickly. And I'm not alone in thinking that. I've heard that from many people.

CHANG: Let's talk about the larger political realities here. I mean, a lot of those state Republican lawmakers have said that tax increases for education are off the table. Many of them ran for office promising that they would oppose tax increases. So what can the legislature do if constituents don't want to pay more for education?

KARVELIS: Yeah. You know, I think that the constituents really honestly do. And what we're looking at doing in terms of our movement is really educating the public and showing them, you know, we're missing over a billion dollars annually from our education fund, our general fund, because there are so many tax cuts going back to about 2008 where we're operating with a billion less dollars annually.

CHANG: What would prompt you to actually strike at this point?

KARVELIS: So what we're doing right now is we're continuing to place emphasis on building that community piece. We believe that support is vital. We'll also be watching what sort of engagement we have from districts across the state here. That tells us ultimately what actions we can take. And then of course we're watching the governor and the legislature. If they don't act, the bottom line is we have to do something because teachers can't afford to live here. We love this job. We love our students. And we can't do this job any longer. Our backs are against the wall. We don't want to strike, but we will.

CHANG: Noah Karvelis is a music teacher and an organizer of Arizona Educators United. Thank you very much.

KARVELIS: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: And we should note that Karvelis is also running Democrat Kathy Hoffman's campaign for Arizona's superintendent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.