Standing With the Lunch Ladies
By David Boyles

According to a poll conducted by local news station KTAR last week, support for the proposed Invest in Education Act ballot initiative stands at 65%. That means if supporters can collect the required signatures to get it on the ballot by July 5, the initiative has a high probability of passing. That a proposed tax increase for the wealthy is polling this well in notoriously tax-averse Arizona is shocking, and conservative opponents are already getting ugly and desperate.

Those who want to continue starving our public education system and replacing it with private and charter schools, which includes Governor Doug Ducey and most of the Republicans in our legislature, have learned from the #RedForEd walkout that attacking teachers doesn’t work. Raising salaries for teachers is extremely popular and opposing them head on is a political loser, so instead Ducey and his cronies have decided to divide and conquer by defining down what a “teacher” is and setting teachers and school support staff against each other, throwing in ugly attacks on low wage workers for good measure.

This tactic started with Ducey’s mythical “20% by 2020” teacher raise proposal, which used an extremely narrow definition of “teacher,” excluding positions such as nurses, counselors, and reading specialists, to get to that 20% number, which he knew most teachers would never actually see. Then, predictably, when school districts such as Tucson Unified planned to give raises to people who fell outside this narrow definition, Ducey blasted the decision and used it to once again pass the buck for school funding problems to the districts.

And now, anti-education stooges are using a similar tactic to attack the Invest in Education Act. At Azcentral, Abe Kwok has criticized the fact that the initiative’s definition of “teachers,” to which 60% of the funds raised are dedicated, includes nurses and counselors. He also criticizes the fact that the remaining 40% dedicated to operations could go to support personnel such as “cafeteria workers and bus drivers.” At KTAR, the popular drive-time duo Mac and Gaydos, who admirably held Ducey’s feet to the fire during the teacher walkout, have also picked up this argument, criticizing the idea that increased school funding could go to “lunch ladies.”

This line of argument both misses the point and plays into an ugly history of demonizing minimum wage workers by Arizona Republicans. First of all, the walkout and the larger #RedForEd movement have never been just about teacher pay, as is clear to anyone who has actually been to the Arizona Educators United website. The List of Demands issued on the eve of the walkout includes the 20% teacher raise as just one of a five point plan to correct the historic disinvestment in public education Arizona has made over the last 25 years. And second on the list is “competitive wages for classified staff.” Focusing only on teacher pay is a way of distracting from the bigger problem of the Arizona legislature’s complete contempt for the idea of public education.

And speaking of contempt, the contempt with which Kwok, Mac and Gaydos, and others have treated classified staff is disgusting. Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows classified staff are vital to its functioning and basic decency should tell you that low wage workers also deserve decent pay and dignity in their jobs. But instead, the conservatives are pulling out many of the same ugly arguments they made in opposition to the Proposition 206 minimum wage increase in 2016.

Classified staff have already made greater sacrifices than most in the #RedForEd movement. They walked out with the teachers in April, even though it meant that, as hourly employees, they would not be getting paid. The Arizona Democrats of Legislative District 18 ran a fundraiser and foodbank for those classified staff, some of whom went two full pay periods without their regular pay, and saw firsthand the sacrifices they made. To now pit them against the teachers instead of acknowledging the contributions that every member of a school staff makes is repugnant. Opponents of public education know the tide has turned against them and are now trying to divide and conquer. Don’t let them. If you support public education, support everyone who makes it possible and support sustainable solutions, not politically expedient quick fixes.

David Boyles is an English instructor at Arizona State University.
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