Support for public education is growing ‘community by community,’ Arizona Education Association president says at Wisconsin forum

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas (center) was welcomed to Wisconsin by former Green Bay Education Association President Amanda Van Remortel and Appleton Education Association President Chris Heller.

Advocates for public education will win the fight “community by community,” Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said Wednesday in a session at the Wisconsin Public Education Network Summer Summit in Appleton.

“You won’t win it at the Capitol,” Thomas said. “You will win it community by community, and it will show up at the Capitol.”

Thomas recounted the events surrounding last spring’s massive Arizona walkouts and rallies that led to a 19% increase in teacher salaries and large increases in public school funding.

The movement, Thomas said, came somewhat as a surprise in the wake of a similar uprising in West Virginia. The movement, he said, was a grassroots one. The union did not start it or organize it but helped manage it, as best it could, he said.

“It exploded in different ways,” he said, “but the piece that was most important to us and most successful to us was that we did very actionable items where people could understand what they were being asked to do, and we gave people the freedom to do it in their own way.”

The unity movement began with educators, parents and supporters wearing red T-shirts. “It became kind of the thing to do by Week 2,” he said. The union did not create the T-shirts, and there was no single design: People were creating their own Red for Ed shirts.

Over a few weeks, everyone was wearing red, and in the fifth week, Arizona Educators United – the independent grassroots group that took over leadership of the movement – created a list of five demands, based on surveys (which indicated overwhelming support for walking out if the demands were not met). The demands were:

  • Bring back $1 billion in school funding that had been cut.
  • Bring back salary schedules.
  • Provide competitive wages for education support professionals.
  • Provide 20% raises for teachers in that budget year.
  • Allow no more tax cuts until the state is 25th in the nation in per-pupil funding.

Rallies started at 5,000 people and grew to 75,000 at the State Capitol. Educators and supporters participated in pre-school walk-ins throughout the state, with 110,000 participating statewide during the second week, which Thomas called “our most powerful moment.” They also conducted massive “stand-outs” along the streets of Tucson and Phoenix.

“We needed the community to understand our story,” he said.

“Nobody wanted to have to do this. But the entire school structure was turned on its head because the school employees were saying, ‘We’re done! We’re done with the cuts. We’re done with the underfunded classrooms. We’re done with the overpopulated classrooms. We have to do this!’ ”

Thomas said the movement brought many new people into union ranks, especially young educators who had never before been involved.

“The learning we had was … we had so many young members and so many young leaders step up in the movement, and that is because they had space to do it. And that’s what we have to keep replicating.”

“We had so many people who went down who had never been to the Capitol before, or had only been at the Capitol for a field trip, that got to see how the sausage was made, who got to see legislators listen to them tell their stories about their students and schools and then completely ignore them and vote against students and schools,” Thomas said.

Thomas said these were among the key learning points:

  • Messaging is very important, and a constant focus on kids is critical. “All of this is about better schools for your kids.”
  • Work deeply with the community, including local businesses.
  • Social media is critical for organizing. In Arizona, it wasn’t the AEA that led the social media effort; it was grassroots messaging and organizing from educators, parents and supporters throughout the state that had the biggest impact.
  • “This was not only an education movement. This was a women’s movement, this was a union movement, this was an equity movement. … Everyone was there.”
  • “Trust your members,” he said. “We didn’t tell them what to do all the time. We told them what they could do, and they figured out how to do it, and they will see things you didn’t see. And we have so many people – an estimated 150,000 for the whole six days – who will never be the same.”

Watch Joe Thomas’ 21-minute presentation: