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Tattered textbooks and cockroach infested buildings: Inside the Arizona teachers strike
Teachers and students wave to motorists outside Paseo Verde Elementary in Peoria, Ariz. Matt York/AP

What do leaky ceilings, disintegrating books and cockroach infestations all have in common? They can all be found in Arizona’s public school classrooms — and on Thursday, educators will hold a statewide walkout in an effort to get lawmakers to increase public education funding for their beleaguered districts.

In the first four months of 2018, education strikes have spread across GOP-controlled states including West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers held rallies outside of state capitol buildings to protest low wages, poor working conditions and a dearth of public school funding. On Thursday, Arizona teachers will add their voices to the movement, staging the first statewide labor action taken up by teachers in Arizona’s history, according to the New York Times.

On April 12, seemingly in an effort to stave off a statewide school shutdown, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey offered teachers a 20% salary hike by the year 2020. But educators have since rebuked the offer, insisting that they want a wholesale increase to public school funding so that pay for school staff — not just teachers — is also competitive.

And wage hikes aren’t the only things that teachers in Arizona are after. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Arizona ranks close to dead last in the United States in terms of per-pupil education spending — and teachers in the state have been feeling the strain.

Cathy Nowicki, a math teacher at Kingman Middle School in Arizona, said in an interview that she and her colleagues roam the halls in their building looking “like something from Indiana Jones” as they attempt to crush the various many-legged critters skittering across the floors.

Cockroaches amassed in a corner of the school where Cathy Nowicki teaches in Kingman, Arizona.
Cockroaches amassed in a corner of the school where Cathy Nowicki teaches in Kingman, Arizona. Cathy Nowicki/Mic

“We move through the halls to step on cockroaches, and in the summer we remove caterpillars,” Nowicki said. “Today, we had one classroom that had cockroaches coming from the ceiling, and in another classroom there is a leak coming from the ceiling. How are we supposed to teach our kids in rooms that are like this?”

In a petition sponsored by Arizona Educators United that garnered over 27,000 signatures, educators in the state have addressed the other ways education cuts have hurt classrooms, calling for “updated textbooks, basic supplies, and technology.”

“We have among the highest class sizes and school counselor loads in the nation, making it difficult to meet the individual needs of our students,” the petition reads.

Nichole Soyka, an eighth grade reading teacher, said that she’s been hit especially hard by the lack of funding because she’s only in her second year of teaching and doesn’t have access to the same resources that the veteran teachers in her district might have in their rooms. “One huge impact I’ve noticed is our reading books are destroyed, some ripped in half,” she said.

A tattered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that eighth grade reading teacher Nichole Soyka’s students use.
A tattered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that eighth grade reading teacher Nichole Soyka’s students use. Nichole Soyka/Mic

With only 30 books for 90 students, she added, it’s impossible to assign take-home reading assignments as homework — and the lack of supplies doesn’t go unnoticed by students.

“I had a student in my homeroom ask me why they aren’t good enough to have real books,” Soyka said. “The budget cuts definitely impact learning for these students. They notice it, since it’s so impossible to hide it from them.”

While Thursday’s strike will be the first statewide education walkout Arizona has ever seen, teachers first began mobilizing months ago. On April 11, the grassroots #RedForEd movement held a “walk-in” demonstration that was attended by more than 100,000 educators from schools across the state. The red shirt-wearing coalition was born within the private Arizona Educators United Facebook page, where members of the Arizona Education Association teachers union, parents and other supporters of the cause have been doing most of their organizing.

When Arizona teachers walk out on Thursday, they won’t be alone. Joining them will be their neighbors to the northeast, where thousands of educators from Colorado plan to petition their own state capitol for increased school funding amid threats of jail time from lawmakers. And in addition to the 5% raises awarded to West Virginia teachers in March, Oklahoma educators received a modest $6,100 pay bump and a $50 million increase to public education spending that month — although many felt that those concessions fell short of what’s needed to fix the state’s flagging public education system.

On Thursday, Soyka said, the main question on educators’ minds will be how Arizona’s legislature plans to fund education for the long-term and not as “a bandage or a quick fix that won’t last.”

“A lot of people I’ve spoken to are okay with property taxes being raised to help pay for students’ education,” she said. “I am open to hearing the plan Governor Ducey creates for funding Arizona public education as long as it is a long term plan and does not rob Peter to pay Paul.”

For many educators, the decision to strike does not come lightly — including Nowicki, who said she was “more internally conflicted” than she had ever been. But for some, the walkout represents a chance to finally have their voices heard by a legislature that has ignored the issues facing teachers for far too long.

“My students are my world,” Nowicki said. “I want to teach, but the fact is that I truly can’t. I can’t be in a room full of bugs or one that is 100 degrees, or a room that is 32 degrees. We cannot teach, so how can the kids learn?”