Arizona's #RedForEd Fiasco Was a Gift to School Choice Advocates

Seeing your kids held hostage in a battle between government factions is a great incentive to look for alternatives.


Arthur Garcia/CrowdSpark/Newscom

In Arizona, the #RedForEd teachers strike has drawn to a close along with the school year itself. Ultimately, public school teachers got their raises, politicians got to posture, and parents and students got a bitter taste of what it's like to be held hostage in a battle between government employees and their paymasters.

For Arizona residents at large, it served as an important lesson about the dangers of leaving themselves at the mercy of government institutions.

Arizona was only the latest state hit this school year by rolling teacher walkouts, after similar strikes occurred in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. Teachers also protested for higher pay in Colorado. But the Grand Canyon State gave the #RedForEd movement its strongest pushback.

That may be because families have more schooling options in Arizona than in most states, because the strike was so simultaneously politicized and pointless, or both. Whatever the reason, Arizonans got annoyed, counter-protested against the strikers, and launched the #PurpleForParents movement to challenge the teacher walkouts.

"Even before the walkouts…Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) had pledged to give teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020," The Washington Post noted as the strike began. And after a week without classes—during which parents scrambled for something to do with their kids while they were at work—that's exactly what the state legislature approved and the governor signed: the proposal lawmakers had already been debating.

This not-so-stunning victory was orchestrated, in part, by Noah Karvelis, a music teacher and the public face of strike masterminds Arizona Educators United, who insists that "teaching is political and silence is complicity." Last year, he wrote an article, "From Marx to Trump: Labor's Role in Revolution," arguing that "Without the empowerment of the working class and of organized labor, any revolution is destined from the outset for failure."

For families, the use of their kids to further Karvelis's cherished revolution was only the start of the expensive toll the teachers strike would take. It continued after the strike to include interrupted preparations for scheduled AP exams and extended school years to make up lost classroom days, playing havoc with graduation and vacation plans. Unsurprisingly, many students and parents were more than a little annoyed.

"By alienating parents, this walk out will empower the opponents of public education and hurt K-12 schools in the long run," warned Linda Valdez, an Arizona Republic columnist who supported the teachers' demands but recognized that the strike was a bad idea.

Other teachers' union partisans lashed out at families who were upset that their lives had been disrupted. "Stop whining," snapped columnist Elva Diaz. "Instead, show teachers you care enough to pressure state government to give them a 20 percent raise and the $1 billion owed to schools." For parents and students who were fed up, she sniffed, "If the backlash against teachers intensifies and prompts parents to look for alternatives, so be it."

But looking for alternatives to dysfunctional government holding pens isn't an empty threat in Arizona, which has a healthy range of education options. Families can choose from charter schools, virtual schools, homeschooling, tax credits for donations to private school scholarship funds, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) for private school tuition. Roughly 17 percent of the state's public school students attend privately managed charters, which offer a range of education philosophies for different needs and tastes. The Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program was extended to all children in the state in 2017—but it's currently on hold, pending the results of a public vote on the program's fate later this year.

Before its passage, state Sen. Steve Farley (D-Tucson)—who now wants to be governor—criticized the voucher extension as "the end of public education in Arizona." After a week of being held hostage by public educators, many families must be hoping that he was right.

In a very real way, the #RedForEd strike was a gift to those of us who see not just lost educational opportunity, but also danger, in letting government officials control what children learn. Politicized union officials and lawmakers playing tug-of-war with children as their playthings turned out to be a wake-up-call for Arizona families.

The state's Goldwater Institute chimed in to criticize the strike and the "collateral damage" it inflicted on children. Columnists speculated that charter schools will likely enjoy a surge in enrollment by families fleeing district schools post-walkout. And I wasn't the only homeschooler to point out that my kid's lessons went uninterrupted by the strike—and to pass around information about education options available to families across the state.

As I said at the time, "Don't get mad about the #RedForEd Arizona teacher strike. Get your kids out of the government schools."