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n spring of 2018, 75,000 Arizona teachers walked out of their schools for 6 days in response to dismal conditions in the state’s public education system. Crumbling buildings, low salaries (of both teachers and support staff), huge class sizes, and low per student spending, compelled teachers to follow the lead of those in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. The teachers had five demands: 1) a 20% salary increase for all teachers; 2) to restore education funding to 2008 levels; 3) to provide competitive pay for all support staff; 4) a permanent annual salary increase and advancement structure; and 5) no new tax cuts until per-student funding reaches the national average (as of 2018, Arizona per student spending was 34% below the national average). This walkout and associated demands, as well those it emerged in concert with, is a direct response to the way in which neoliberal policies have manifested and affected students, teachers, and community members more broadly.
The public school system in the United States has been radically transformed under the framework of neoliberalism. The state of Arizona is a particularly stark example of what neoliberal education reforms can look like in practice and its effect on education. Since the 1970s, processes of marketization and privatization carried out under the banner of ‘school choice’ have ushered in the expansion of the charter school system alongside the decline and disinvestment in public schools. According to 2015-16 statistics, nearly 16% of the students enrolled in public schools in the state attend one of 535 charter schools (we are second only to Washington, D.C., in charter school enrollment). At the same time we have seen a parallel process of widespread disinvestment in public education. As of 2017, Arizona is 48th nationally for per student expenditures ($7,501 per student in 2017) and schools struggle to maintain buildings that are safe for students, teachers, and staff.
The widespread defunding of public education and associate administrative policies founded in neoliberal ideologies has led to teaching conditions that are atrocious in Arizona—conditions that have been central to creating a widespread teacher shortage. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public school teachers in Arizona have seen a 10.4% decrease in their salaries since 1999 and Arizona has the second highest student to teacher ratio (23.5/1) in the country, with many high school science classrooms in the most economically oppressed communities reporting class sizes of 40+ students. Teacher shortages abound. 4 months into the 2017-18 academic year, nearly 2,000 teaching positions remained unfilled in the state. State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Diane Douglas, attributed vacancies to a combination of low salaries, an overly bureaucratic teaching environment, and restrictive rules on how teachers can provide instruction (Fischer, 2017). The state response to the shortage, however, has not been to improve working conditions, but rather to continue to reduce teacher certification requirements with the intention of ‘attracting’ more people to the profession. For example, in spring 2017, Governor Doug Ducey signed into legislation a bill that lowered the standards for public school teachers to the point that no formal teacher training, certification, or experience is required for employment.
While parents, community members, and researchers alike have attested to the negative effect ‘school choice’ policies and the defunding of education has had on schools, students, and teachers in the state, we have begun interrogating ways in which the conditions created by these policies have catalyzed widespread collective action. How, we ask, have structural conditions produced by processes of neoliberalization and the deprofessionalization of teaching constituted conditions for both everyday and collective acts of resistance by educators? How do widespread teacher shortages create possibilities for individual and collective action aimed at improving education in the state?
We come to these questions via collaborative engagement with public school science teachers in southern Arizona. For the last 6 months, we have been working with 7 teachers to better understand the challenges they face as they work to enact a pedagogical praxis that links science to larger societal issues of inequality, oppression, and discrimination. Our project intended to identify and overcome the challenges associated with teaching politicized science in a context of disinvestment and neoliberalization, so conversations often turned to how they found space for resisting policies that they found counterproductive or destructive. As one upper elementary teacher commented:
"I think I’ve just gotten to this point where there’s such a need for education reform especially in our state and we’re somewhat at the advantage that there is a teacher shortage so it’s kind of like, are you really going to fire me because I have Spanish books [in my classroom]? Kind of giving them like the big middle finger, like do it!....It’s almost like advantageous that we are in Arizona as teachers right now because [even though there is a lot of pressure put on us by districts and at the school-level] I still kind of feel like well, I’m going to do what I think is best for kids and if you don’t think that and you have a really big problem with it then we can talk. But no one’s every come and talked to me."
As this quotation illustrates, teachers have reframed widespread teacher shortages as a context that provides the opportunity and space to act in ways that transgress policies in the name of doing what is best for students—not what is compliant. As a middle school teacher expanded:
"I have a mantra from one of my mentors. I will go to her with a problem or when I’m feeling conflicted or didn’t know what to do or if I wasn’t sure if I was doing something. And she goes, ‘when there’s a line of people outside the door that are waiting to take your job, then worry about that. But until then, do what you think is best for your classroom and your students.’….It’s very empowering when you realize that."
Teacher shortages ironically contribute to a context in which teachers feel agency to transgress neoliberal policies as they engage with their students and in their classrooms. This is not to suggest that neoliberal policies are good for teachers, students, or the wider communities that they are a part of; rather, it is to reveal how resistance emerges at the margins of oppressive policy moves such as disinvestment, privatization, and marketization in educational systems (Anyon, 2014). As Convertino (2016) writes, “when we fail to recognize resistance in all forms and in all places…different forms of teacher agency are made invisible or erased” (90). The work of feminist scholars such as Gibson-Graham (1996; 2006) has important shown how all-consuming narratives of subjection and oppression by capitalism limits our ability to see the already existing spaces and practices of resistance that give us hope and inspiration for a world otherwise. Instead, we must recognize the way in which people are already and always resisting and creating alternatives.
While the small acts of everyday resistance the teachers we’re working with spoke about are not nearly as spectacular as the 75,000 clad in red who marched at the state capitol, they are important for they underlie the context from which widespread collective action emerges. As a middle school teacher commented: “Everyone really you know has a reason to be afraid for their job, but the reality is sometimes that they have a lot more freedom than they know.” While right-to-work laws and union-busting tactics aim to inhibit labor organizing by creating a sense of precarity and fear among workers, we have seen that disinvestment, deprofessionalization, and marketization foment resistance in both big and small forms as teachers come to realize that they have more space to act, even publicly, than they had previously thought (or been led to believe).
Even among the small group of teachers with whom we are working, we have also seen shifts in how these teachers have become even more politically empowered through their participation in the teacher strike and Red for Ed movement. As civil rights scholar-activist Jean Anyon (2014) has written, “We see that as political identities emerge from participation in protest, repertoires of action and altered cultural forms develop concurrently, as people take part in contentious politics” (142). One middle school teacher commented on how her participation in the strike has made her even more emboldened:
"I’ll tell you what, though, like I think the whole process has turned me into that teacher, right? [laughing] I may have been on that side before, but now it’s kind of whatever little bit of fear, and we’ve talked about this in this group before, whatever little bit of fear I had, of like, well I shouldn’t do this, it’s not there anymore. Like there is no reason to do anything other than what...I should do, Right? So I think that’s been really nice because our [school] site was unified, our parents were organizing drives up [to the Capitol], they were standing out there with us every day, our district, our principal… it was 100% a unifying feeling, and it was very empowering to feel like, you know, you’re not alone all the time. That’s nice."
Drawing from the Dynamics of Contention by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, Anyon (2014) describes how human agency is essential to the mobilization of a social movement. People have to feel like there is an opportunity to enact agency. She discusses how “opportunities for waging struggle” in the midst of political and economic precarity are essential ingredients of social change: “Situations that [are] previously understood as oppressive but immutable can be re-imagined and viewed as useful” (133)--the realization, for example, that one has leverage. We see this in the teachers’ recognition of ongoing teacher shortages (i.e., “‘When there’s a line of people outside the door that are waiting to take your job, then worry about that’.”) Also important was teachers’ perceptions of not only having leverage in their individual acts of resistance, but also leverage in numbers, a sense of solidarity (i.e., “They were standing out there with us every day”). Both an increasing sense of individual agency and community solidarity ignited teachers toward more public forms of resistance, all within contexts of immense precarity and injustice. Indeed, these contexts are driving forces behind a collective movement such as the Red for Ed movement in Arizona.
The teachers involved in the Red for Ed movement recognize that they achieved a small win, but the struggle is far from over. After 6 days of statewide walkouts, the Governor signed a plan to give teachers a 20% pay raise over 3 years, but left many of their demands unmet. In response, teachers went back to their classes and schools, but also continue to organize for widespread structural change. The movement has proposed a ballot initiative that would tax the wealthiest residents (making over $500,000) to fund public education in the state. Many teachers are now canvassing to get the initiative on the ballot in November. The general sentiment among teachers in the movement is that they accomplished what they could with the current state government, and will continue their struggle at the ballot box in the fall of this year.
Through our work with local teachers we have seen that both small and big acts of resistance are necessary for resisting the decline of public education. In some situations, disinvestment, marketization, and deprofessionalization has, ironically, created the very conditions that enable resistance. As teachers realize that they ‘have a lot more freedom than they know’ they are empowered to act and a powerful feedback loop emerges where resistance snowballs and movements build. However, as one of the teachers in our group commented, the question that lingers is: “how long will that momentum hold?”
Acknowledgements: The research this piece is based on was made possible by generous funding from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. We are particularly grateful to the inspiring teachers who have shared their time and insights with us.
Anyon J (2014) Radical possibilities: Public policy, urban education, and a new social movement, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
Convertino C (2016) The Paradoxes, Perils, and Possibilities of Teacher Resistance in a Right-To-Work State. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor 26: 89-99.
Fischer H (2017) Arizona Teaching jobs remain vacant well into school year. Arizona Daily Star. 19 December.
Gibson-Graham JK (1996) The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gibson-Graham JK (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
McAdam D, Tarrow S, & Tilly C (2010) Dynamics of contention. New York: Cambridge University Press.