A grassroots movement for increased school funding inspired the Arizona Education Association to help—first, by not getting in the way.
Since early March, educators in Arizona have been organizing and pressing the state legislature for an increase in school funding. A startup grassroots group launched on Facebook—Arizona Educators United (AEU)—began promoting itself under the hashtag #RedForEd, and last week its efforts culminated in a statewide walkout. (At press time, the strike continues, pending approval of a new state budget.)
This might be a situation where the Arizona Education Association, the state’s main public-school teachers union and membership organization for educators, would take the lead. But AEA president Joe Thomas said that it was important that the association not dampen the grassroots effort. Instead, it looked for ways to partner with AEU rather than wrangle over leadership.
“We never thought it would be a good idea to try to get out in front of them,” Thomas said.
Practically, that’s meant that AEA has handled the logistical side of the effort. Last month, for instance, it helped coordinate 12 meetings across the state to hold training sessions on the logistics of a potential walkout. “AEA was able to get all the materials ready and call around and made sure we had sites spread out across the state that weren’t more than about 45 minutes or thereabouts to drive to,” he said.
Marshaling enthusiasm was left for AEU, which Thomas said worked well. “We ended up with 250 to 300 people at multiple sites,” he said. “Had we done it ourselves, we probably would have topped out at about 100 to 150. We used their leaders as trainers as well, so it gave us more trainers, more coverage, and certainly more capacity.”
After the walkout began last Thursday, thousands of supporters of the effort have congregated around the capitol building in downtown Phoenix. There, again, AEA has emphasized logistics, paying for the stage, sound system, bottled water, and portable toilets. “The [AEU] movement doesn’t have organizational structure that can slow down decision making,” Thomas said. “They’re nimble. We move a little bit slower, but when we move we can bring a lot more force with us and more resources.”
Still, Thomas said AEA has sped up in the past month, especially when it comes to member communication. “I never did Facebook videos before this, but now I do them almost every night,” he said. “It helps me align everything. I haven’t had a sleepless night yet because I know that I’m able to get this message out, and I have 5,000 views by the morning. That’s very new ground for me.”
In the long run, Thomas said, the partnership with AEU not only gives AEA an opportunity to meet some of its short-term goals in terms of school funding, but also to potentially build a new base of future leaders.
“I think the biggest benefit [of the partnership] has been the idea that the association is welcoming in new leaders all the time,” he said. “We see all of these leaders in AEU as important to the overall movement for education. I think that they have seen us as having information and knowledge and resources that can help them move the ball further. In the end, I don’t care who throws the touchdown pass.”