Education initiative helping mobilize voters against the right wing in Arizona
In this image from video, Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, speaks during the state roll call vote on the second night of the Democratic National Convention, Aug. 18, 2020. The 'Invest in Ed' proposition to tax the super wealthy and fund public education is helping mobilize a progressive electorate in Arizona. | Democratic National Convention via AP

TUCSON—It took an Arizona Supreme Court decision to put the “Invest in Education” voter initiative back on the ballot after it was thrown off by a right-wing trial judge. The broad coalition of educators, parents, students, organized labor, and communities that came together after the 2018 teachers’ strike has been organizing tirelessly ever since. The Chamber of Commerce managed to get the courts to strike a similar initiative off the 2018 ballot, but the movement succeeded this time, in spite of the ongoing pandemic. Now, Proposition 208, also known as “Invest in Ed,” promises to help transform Arizona.

It’s looking like Arizona is finally ready to flip. Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat in 2018, and polling indicates incumbent Republican Martha McSally will likely lose the other Senate seat to Democrat Mark Kelly this year. Democrats already hold five of Arizona’s nine U.S. House seats, with a chance of gaining a sixth this November. President Trump, who narrowly carried Arizona in 2016, is also trailing in most Arizona polls. The broad support for Prop. 208 across the entire state in practically every community should help turn out an electorate that can only benefit progressive candidates.

“Invest in ED” calls for a tax surcharge on the richest Arizonans to raise up to a billion dollars for public schools, mostly to fund salaries and reduce class size. This will be a welcome change for schools suffering from repeated attacks from the ultra-right state legislature, which has been cutting school funding to give tax cuts and loopholes to large corporations and the wealthy. Arizona ranks 49th out of 50 states in school funding, and Prop. 208 will only raise the state to around 40th in rank, so it’s just a first step. Right now, low teacher pay has created a huge teacher shortage, and as many as 25% of those hired this year are lacking proper teaching credentials. Arizona now spends an average of $8,300 per student compared to the national average of $12,756.

Until some 20 years ago, some Republican legislators supported public education, but that has changed as the ultra-right took hold of the Republican Party. Like the Trump administration, it’s clear that their agenda has been to destroy the public education system by defunding, contracting out with charter schools, and issuing vouchers to divert public money to private schools. The education coalition, therefore, is striving to not only pass Prop. 208 but also change the Arizona Legislature, where all seats are up for election. The broad popularity for the initiative will make opposing Prop. 208 tough for Republicans in close races.

The Aug. 4 primary results demonstrate the narrowness of the Republican Party’s electorate in the state. Of the 75 Republican candidates for the 90 legislative seats, none are Native American and only two are Mexican American, both running in overwhelmingly Democratic districts where they have no chance of winning. This in a state where some 40% are Native or Latinx. Democrats, on the other hand, have nominated 31 Native and Latinx candidates, as well as 6 African Americans and Asian Americans. Only a third of Republican nominees are women, while the Democratic nominees are two-thirds women.

Many of the Democratic candidates are teachers inspired by the “Invest in Ed” movement. Teachers like Christine Marsh in District 27 and Judy Schiebert in District 20 have a good chance of flipping seats and join teacher Jennifer Pawlik in the legislature. Pawlik is running for re-election for the seat she won in 2018.

Republicans currently hold a 17 to 13 advantage in the Senate and a 31 to 29 advantage in the House of Representatives. Even a one seat gain in the House will give Democrats a 30 to 30 tie, which, since Arizona doesn’t have a Lt. Governor to cut a tie, means they could stop the onslaught of attacks on working people. In Legislative District 6, another competitive seat, Democrats are hoping for a double win with State Senate candidate Felicia French, who came close to winning in 2018, and Flagstaff’s African-American Mayor Coral Evans, who’s in the running for a State House seat.

In mostly Democratic Pima County, home to about one million Arizonans, Democrat Laura Conover, a public defender, easily defeated two prosecutors in the Democratic primary and is unopposed in November. This is an office usually won by prosecutors with strong “law and order” campaigns.

In the race for County Recorder, an office in charge of elections, the Democratic primary was won by Gabriella Cazares-Kelly, a teacher, union activist, and DSA member. When elected, she will be the first Native American to hold a Pima County office.

Arizona’s labor movement is very involved in the campaigns to pass Prop. 208 and to flip the state. In Pima County, labor had five candidates from their ranks in the Democratic primary, with three making it on to the general election. The pandemic has interfered with some of labor’s campaign plans, but they have been offered solidarity support from California unionists in safe districts who have offered to help with intensive phone calling.

Arizona has had as many as 80% voting by mail before the pandemic, but that percentage increased in the August primary. Over 95% of primary voters used mail-in ballots in both Pima and Maricopa Counties, which together are home to 85% of the state’s population. Since most of the November ballots will arrive in the mail prior to Election Day rather than being dropped off, the counting will likely take less time than previously expected and contrary to Trump’s claims.

ELECTION 2020: Everything you need to know to vote in your state


Joe Bernick
Joe Bernick

Joe Bernick is the Director of Salt of the Earth Labor College, Tucson, Arizona.