Arizona GOP unveils plan to address Arizona teacher shortage with $4,000 raises

Arizona teachers could see $4,000
pay raises in 2025  if a revised version of Prop. 123 championed by
Republican lawmakers gets sent to the 2024 ballot and wins voter
approval. 

The “Teacher Pay Fund,” which was
unveiled Monday by GOP lawmakers, will be a top priority for the party
in the upcoming legislative session. Its aim, according to Senate
President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, is to reduce the state’s ongoing
teacher shortage. Arizona is in its eighth consecutive year of the
shortage, with more than 6,000 classrooms lacking a qualified teacher at the start of this school year.

“We are all committed to making sure
that our kids receive a great education, and we want a quality and good
teacher at the front of the classroom,” Petersen said at a Monday press
conference.

The problem, Petersen said, is that
salaries in Arizona aren’t currently enticing enough to convince
teachers to stay. The state ranks 32nd in the nation for teacher pay,
according to the National Education Association, and the average salary of $56,775 is nearly $10,000 less than the national average. 

By contrast, Colorado pays its
teachers $60,130 on average. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom
Horne, a Republican who voiced support for the new fund on Monday, said
the state’s low pay leads to an abysmal retention rate among new
teachers. In their first four years as educators, Horne said, about 40%
of teachers leave Arizona classrooms. 

“This is a real emergency for us,” he said. “We’ve got to raise our teacher salaries so that we stop losing our teachers.”

For Julie Garcia, a kindergarten
teacher with over a decade of experience in Arizona classrooms, a pay
raise is sorely needed. Garcia had low expectations going into the
profession, but was astounded that not even a master’s degree would save
her from worrying about making ends meet. 

“There are more times than I would
like to admit that my family has had to wait a few days to get groceries
or gas,” she said. “With 12 years of experience and a master’s degree,
this is alarming for me and my family.” 

To resolve the issue, Republicans are planning to overhaul Proposition 123, an initiative first OK’d by voters in 2016 that funneled $3.5 billion over the past decade
into public education funding. Then-Gov. Doug Ducey greenlit the
withdrawal from the State Land Trust — a portfolio of land granted to
Arizona by the federal government meant to benefit specific public
entities, including public schools — to settle a lawsuit over his
administration’s failure to increase school funding year over year to
account for inflation rates. 

Before Prop. 123 was given the
go-ahead from Arizona voters, K-12 public education received 2.5% in
funding from the State Land Trust. The initiative increased that to
6.9%, but that funding boost was temporary and is set to expire in 2025.
Legislative Republicans now want to keep that percentage boost in place
for another 8 to 10 years, but earmark the nearly $300 million a year
for teacher salaries. 

Because doing so requires amending
the state constitution, lawmakers will have to refer a proposal to the
November 2024 ballot, when Arizona voters will choose whether to support
it. 

Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, applauded
the proposal for its specificity. Clarifying who the money is intended
for is imperative, he said, to ensure the Teacher Pay Fund doesn’t meet
the same fate as the “20 by 2020” plan championed by Ducey that Gress,
who at the time served as Ducey’s budget director, helped craft. 

That plan fell short of increasing
teacher salaries across the state by its stated 20% goal, largely
because some school districts opted to use the money to also increase
pay for support staff, including librarians and school counselors. A 2022 report from the Arizona Auditor General found that less than half of all school districts met the 20% goal and, on average, teacher salaries increased by only 16.5%. 

“Arizonans want teachers to be paid
more, Arizonans want more dollars to go into the classroom,” Gress said.
“It’s time to do the right thing: to bypass administration and the
education unions and get our teachers the pay raise they deserve.” 

Accusations that school districts
misallocate funds to benefit administrators are a common refrain from
Republican lawmakers, despite the fact that administrator pay hasn’t changed since 2016, and has little to no relative impact on teacher pay. 

Republicans expect the Teacher Pay
Fund’s clearer funding path will save it from the pitfalls of the 20 by
2020 plan. Sourcing the money from the State Land Trust means Arizonans
won’t have to deal with increased taxes to fund the salary boost, and
GOP lawmakers swiftly dismissed concerns that continuing a higher draw
from the Land Trust could harm its financial future. 

The Land Trust has seen consistently
high revenue intake over the years, Petersen said. In fiscal year 2021,
the Arizona State Land Department collected $433.9 million from sales and royalties — until then the highest grossing year on record. In fiscal year 2022, that record was shattered at $623 million and in the most recent report for fiscal year 2023, the department generated $444 million.
If the Trust does experience a shortfall in the future, the amount
withdrawn to fund teacher salaries will simply be reduced, Petersen
said. 

He touted the proposal as a natural
extension of legislative Republicans’ ongoing efforts to mitigate
inflationary pressures on everyday Arizonans. This year, the party
championed and succeeded in passing a rental tax repeal and a family tax rebate.
In the upcoming session, Petersen said, Republican lawmakers will
continue that trend by backing legislation addressing gas prices,
housing costs and teacher pay. 

An attempt to address the teacher shortage earlier this year fell apart when Democrats refused to side with a Republican plan to approve $10,000 raises for teachers across the state.
The proposal, sponsored by Gress, was bogged down by academic
transparency amendments and teaching time requirements that left out
many instructors and all support staff, alienating education advocates
and Democrats alike. Ultimately, the proposal failed to make it through
budget negotiations. 

Unlike Gress’ bill, however, the
Teacher Pay Fund doesn’t require bipartisan agreement or even Hobbs’
signature. Only a simple majority is needed to send an initiative to the
ballot, and Republicans hold a one-vote majority in both legislative
chambers. 

Education advocates, Democrats respond

Marisol Garcia, the president of the
state’s largest teacher’s union, the Arizona Education Association, said
her organization is open to any ideas put forth to resolve the teacher
crisis. But she said leaving out critical support staff personnel — like
librarians, counselors, paraprofessionals and bus drivers — from pay
increases is a mistake. Those workers are just as important to ensure a
functioning public school system that Arizona students can get the most
out of, she said. 

“Just like classroom teachers, our
education support professionals are seriously underpaid, leading to
shortages that impact our students every day,” Garcia said in an emailed
statement. “The people who open our schools in the morning, and who
close our schools each night, deserve to be included in any proposed
raise.” 

Democrats were unimpressed with the
proposal, pointing out that the universal school voucher program,
championed by Republicans, is a large part of the problem when it comes
to fully funding public schools. A recent explosion in voucher
recipients has fielded criticism for benefitting private school students
with no public school history, and the program is estimated to cost the state $900 million in the next year. 

“It was a nice change to see
Republicans speaking respectfully of public school teachers, but the
reality is it would be much easier to raise educator pay if their
universal voucher scheme to subsidize private schools hadn’t put our
budget $400 million out of balance before we even start our next
(legislative) session,” Rep Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, said in an emailed statement. 

The state budget is facing a $400 million deficit,
with voucher expenses and decreased revenue from a new flat income tax —
also a Republican priority from the Ducey era — are the key culprits
for the shortfall. That deficit may prove a roadblock for Republicans
touting the Teacher Pay Fund. On Monday, Republicans promised to
appropriate money from the state general fund every year to replace the
funds taken from the State Land Trust that usually support a myriad of
public education needs, but which, if the initiative is passed, will be
dedicated instead to teacher salaries.