By Timothy Sandefur
For the past couple of days, the Goldwater Institute has been deluged by parents and teachers calling and writing to ask our help in opposing the illegal teacher strike going on in Arizona. We’re trying to respond to everyone that we can—bear with us, it’s a lot—but in the meantime, we wanted to share some of their stories.
These walkouts aren’t just illegal—and they aren’t just setting a bad example for the students of our state—but they’re also interfering with the educational needs and the personal lives of the kids that school employees claim they care about. That was a big concern for Archie Gaebel, a speech therapist at an East Valley district. “We claim to love the students,” he said. “And I want to be fair to my community and serve the students as I agreed to.” But he’s not being allowed to because the school district shut down.
Rob Burns, who teaches English in Chandler, agreed. “When this started, some of the teachers said it would be two or three weeks—and the seniors were ticked. That means they might not get their transcripts or diplomas right away. A lot of seniors are starting work after graduation, and they’re worried about that. I have some juniors, too, and at first they were excited, but they already have a short summer, and now they’re being told we’ll have to make up time in the summer, and that’ll shorten it even more.”
School districts, however, aren’t making any serious efforts to open up. Some have openly encouraged teachers not to show up for work. Others have closed down all the schools in the district even if some could still have opened. “They haven’t even tried once to contact the employees directly to find out if they’re willing to come back,” noted Mr. Gaebel. “They’re just relying on surveys that are being done by the AEU [Arizona Educators United]. The initial vote was done in a back parking lot—no secret ballot. A lot of people were supportive of the walk-in, but AEU then used that to justify an open-ended walk-out. The district should hire a neutral third party to find out who’s willing to return.”
Mr. Burns agreed. “It should have been set up by some independent group. But it wasn’t. It was run by this so-called grassroots organization. And not a lot of people voted. I didn’t vote—a lot of people didn’t vote—and then there was another vote on whether to come back on Monday. I saw results. Maybe the question was confused, but something like 86 percent of the support staff and 75 percent of the certified staff said yes.” Nevertheless, the district chose to shut down. Shery Paul, a math and science teacher in Chandler, works for a small school, where all of the employees voted to stay at their jobs—only to be told no. “I work at a very small school, only five of us, and we voted no. We don’t affect the buses, we don’t affect lunch, and we voted no, but we were got locked out anyway. We were willing to open.”
Some teachers tried to find ways of teaching kids during the walkout—meeting them at Starbucks to tutor them, for instance, or assigning homework during the strike—only to be told by their superiors that they would be punished if they did so. But the districts have also made clear that teachers will not face adverse consequences for refusing to show up for work. Even though state law allows districts to withhold pay or even terminate teachers for refusing to comply with their employment contracts, the districts have refused to take any steps to enforce the rules. And the ones who suffer are the students and the conscientious teachers who want to do their jobs as they promised. “We have a social contract,” says Mr. Gaebel. “It says we’ll work and keep these schools open as best we can. But that isn’t happening.”
Ms. Paul suffered an injury in December that forced her to work half-days so she could go to therapy. She had just returned to work full-time, only to be told that she may be forced to work extra days at the end of the summer. “That puts a real strain on me because of my injury,” she says. “And it’s not fair. I was willing to work these days, and I wasn’t allowed to—the district wouldn’t let me—and now I’m being told I have to work extra days at the end for no extra pay? I have honored my contract and the district shut me down.”
Mr. Gaebel and Ms. Paul both tried to find ways to work even if the students weren’t in school. “I have a contract that gives me five non-student days at the end of the year,” said Mr. Gaebel. “So I asked, ‘Can I come in and do those five days? It’s a right to work state!’—and I was told no.” Ms. Paul, too, asked if she could come in to organize her files. “I’ve got plenty to do even if the students aren’t there—and they locked me out!”
All the teachers we spoke to were worried about the effect this is having on their students. “I’ll stay late for my seniors if I have to to help my seniors graduate,” said Ms. Paul. “I’ll have to work ’til 6 every day and work Saturdays to get the seniors graduated, and I’ll do it because they’re the ones we’re supposed to help. We all say we care about the students, but what are we really doing?” “What they’re doing now is bad for the students and the teachers who want to come back,” said Mr. Burns. And Mr. Gaebel agreed. “I think it’s important to give the lawmakers time, and in the meantime we should serve the students like we agreed to.”
Although the media has focused on the public school employees who have refused to work, there are many hardworking and honest teachers who want to honor the promises they made when they signed their work contracts. But they’re not being allowed to, thanks to the efforts of district officials to close down the schools for political purposes. “We’re a right to work state and we’re being forced to participate in this strike,” said Mr. Burns. “I don’t think that’s the right way.”
Timothy Sandefur is the vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute.