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Arizona Governor Grapples with Funding Teacher Pay Plan

ERS' funding analysis work featured in The Republic

Read the editorial as it appeared in The Republic.

When it comes to education funding, Arizona can’t make wise decisions about the future without a careful examination of where we are and how we got here.

First, let’s look at where we are:

  • Arizona’s investment in K-12 has been behind nationally since 1990; it is now at one of the lowest points in the last three decades;
  • It can take a teacher more than 25 years just to earn a living wage;
  • Providing a living wage for teachers by mid-career would cost about $1 billion a year.

These numbers are in a new report completed by Education Resource Strategies with funding from the Arizona Community Foundation.

Teachers have reached a breaking point

The needs in our schools also reflect years of under funding capital expenses, such as building repairs, computers, buses and textbooks.

In addition, #RedForEd (Arizona Education United) and the Arizona Education Association point to the need to better compensate support personnel, who help make our schools safe, welcoming places that are conducive to learning.

Teachers reached the breaking point, and the popular support behind them led Gov. Doug Ducey to propose raising teacher salaries, which he says can be paid for largely through increased state revenues. He will also sweep money from other sources.

Public is behind governor's plan

The public, which has long demonstrated support for better funding schools, is behind Ducey’s plan, which would result in teachers getting a 20 percent raise phased in over three years. He would also restore assistance for building repairs and other capital costs.

poll conducted by Data Orbital after Ducey’s proposal was announced found 75.3 percent approved of the plan to give teachers a 20 percent raise.

It also found that 49 percent of those polled said they would be more likely to back a lawmaker who supported the raises.

Top school and business leaders have also expressed support.

But teachers who began this movement are correct in voicing strong concerns about how this will be financed in future years.

Ducey’s plan does not create a dedicated funding source for what would be a significant increase in state spending. 

Figures from the governor's office put the cost of phasing in teacher raises at $650 million over three years, and the cost of providing money for capital expenses at $371 million total by fiscal year 2023.

But can we sustain this raise? Doubtful

To pay for this, Ducey relies on revenue projections that are viewed by some as overly optimistic. In addition, he counts on lower costs due to fewer people on the state’s health care program for the poor, as well as shifting funding priorities and sweeping funds, including from the Department of Environmental Quality.

There are nagging questions about whether this will be enough to sustain the promised raises.

This is why we also need to consider how Arizona dug itself to the bottom of the very deep school funding hole.

As the report from the Arizona Community Foundation points out, the “commitment to education funding in Arizona has lagged the nation since 1990.”

The lack of commitment is not a new problem.

But deep cutting during the recession, when Arizona’s budget was bleeding red ink, made things much, much worse. Voters approved a temporary 1-cent sales tax to ease the pain for schools, which is another measure of public good will toward teachers.

Ducey's plan won't work without new revenue

But that tax was temporary and, as state treasurer, Ducey successfully led opposition to a ballot measure that would have extended it.

Despite recent efforts to restore some funding, Arizona’s K-12 spending is low even when compared with conservative states that are economically similar to Arizona, according to the report done for the Arizona Community Foundation.

The governor offered a very attractive offer that proposes to raise teacher salaries and begins reinvesting in schools. But the context is important.

He did so in an election year when he was under pressure from teachers and others who understand the depth of need and the importance of K-12 funding.

He did it in a way that comports with his own philosophical bent to continue cutting taxes – a process that began with an earlier Republican governor in the 1990s and ultimately left the state without the revenue to properly fund education.

Ducey’s plan for teacher salaries is at best a stopgap. It is a way to meet teachers’ demands, respond to public pressure and move the state beyond the current crisis – and Ducey's reelection campaign.

But in the long run, Arizona will need new revenue to sustain the promised raises and the other necessary investments in our schools.

Otherwise, when the next economic downturn happens – and it will – schools will again be vulnerable to deep and damaging cuts.

That is the inescapable lesson from taking a hard look at where we are and how we got here.



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