PHOENIX — Arizona leaders dealing with an unprecedented teacher strike are paying the political price for long-festering resentment among many public school teachers who say they are fed up with lagging salaries and what they see as an equally dangerous attack on their profession: school vouchers.
Arizona is the U.S. leader in the movement to expand voucher programs, which give families state money to send their children to private schools. Lawmakers also have heaped tax breaks and incentives on charter schools in a state with the largest percentage of students in charters nationwide.
Voucher advocates say the options are good for families with children who may be struggling in a traditional public school.
Many public school teachers have vehemently opposed such efforts, especially as state education funding has dwindled since the Great Recession. They reject charter and voucher programs as an unqualified drain on money that their schools desperately need.
The tense dynamic was on display when teachers walked off the job Thursday, leaving Gov. Doug Ducey to navigate Arizona's first-ever statewide strike. The Republican, who's facing re-election this year, is offering a nearly 20 percent raise by 2020 and said this week he didn't understand why teachers were still protesting.
Some educators say they are fueled partly by their war with Ducey over his latest expansion of a voucher-like program — a pioneering "education savings account" that allows virtually any family to get public dollars to pay for private school expenses. It's among the most ambitious voucher programs nationally.
"It completely undermines any sense of trust there could be. It's not that he hasn't managed to find money to put into public education, it's that he's personally spearheaded taking money out of public education," said Dawn Penich-Thacker, leader of the group Save Our Schools Arizona that got the voucher plan onto the November ballot.
"If you can't pay your bills, that's one thing, but to steal from the person you won't pay back is another," said Penich-Thacker, who teaches English in Phoenix.
The movement for increased teacher pay and school funding has prompted walkouts in other Republican-led states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky and left lawmakers scrambling to meet teacher demands. While money has been the primary issue, teachers also have pushed for systemic changes they insist are needed to protect public education.
The uprising comes after teachers spent the last decade defending themselves from blame for America's ailing school systems. Teachers unions have fought back with a "war on teachers" narrative, but school vouchers have gained significant ground.
It's also been a prominent political issue in Colorado, and in states like Kentucky and Oklahoma, which recently saw battles over charter schools. Governors of those states insist their teacher strike talks haven't been influenced by school choice options.
Teachers perceive hostility from across the political spectrum, from former President Barack Obama, a Democrat who appealed for "good" charter schools, and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Republican with a longtime zest for private school vouchers. Billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch also have spent heavily to get candidates elected in Arizona and elsewhere who favor vouchers.
The school choice rallying cry that suggests the nation's most vulnerable children are trapped by failing schools has ushered in a sentiment that it may be time to try something new, if not abandon some traditional public schools.
The rights of teachers unions also have been challenged from Madison, Wisconsin, to the U.S. Supreme Court, and there's an effort to tie teacher performance evaluations to their students' test scores.
The Arizona governor's spokesman dismissed the idea that Ducey opposes public schools by backing vouchers and believes giving parents more choices strengthens the overall education system.
"The governor really recognizes all our public schools as part of the solution toward making sure that every student in the state has access to a great education, and their parents have options of where they can send their student," spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said.
In the middle is an unlikely player: the few charter school teachers who have joined the protest. Scarpinato, downplaying the tension over vouchers, said they are in this fight as publicly funded teachers. Pro-charter advocacy group Center for Education Reform has accused national unions of recruiting charter educators into protesting.
Ducey's 2017 voucher expansion is presenting him with a political challenge in November. Public school advocates gathered enough signatures to get a repeal measure on the state ballot, forcing him to navigate the fallout from teacher walkouts and an effort to overturn a signature accomplishment while asking for another term.
Frank Eager, a veteran art teacher at a Phoenix-area high school, said the state's expansive mix of school options has eroded the community-minded approach to nurturing kids. He said it also makes him feel like a baby sitter begging for business, which undermines his role and authority.
"It's been more of a stress on me, just trying to prove my self-worth every day," Eager said. "As a professional, I feel insulted."
Jason Bedrick, policy director for the school choice advocacy group EdChoice, said teachers groups are pitting educators against families for political gain.
"If they're looking to see why they're not earning what they think they should, school choice isn't the issue," Bedrick said.
Despite the intense debate, about 85 percent of U.S. students go to traditional public schools.
Karin Cather, an Arizona parent, said diverting money from public schools winds up affecting students like her son, who receives special education services.
"This is not something that erupted overnight," Cather said. "I can't justify to myself forcing those teachers to continue to work under those conditions while the Arizona state Legislature continues to hack away at education funding."