Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas is advocating for a permanent extension and expansion of Proposition 301, a sales tax to fund public education that expires after 2020.
Speaking at an Arizona Business Education Coalition conference Thursday morning, Douglas proposed increasing the current 0.6 cent sales tax to a full cent, thereby raising an additional $400 million a year by her calculations. And if she has her way, $300 million would go directly to increasing teacher pay.
The remaining $100 million would go toward public schools’ “crumbling” infrastructure.
“It’s no wonder we have a difficult time attracting teachers to the profession,” she said, pointing to teacher pay as the most significant obstacle facing statewide education. “They work in an environment where they feel restricted, they feel disrespected and most certainly underpaid.”
The average salary for an Arizona teacher is just over $45,000, according to the National Education Association. That was lower than average pay in all but four other states in 2016.
Douglas said her proposal would increase salaries by 11 percent, or about $5,000. And she wants to keep the promise she said the original tax did not by ensuring the additional funding goes directly to teachers.
Douglas said Prop. 301 was sold to voters as a mechanism for increasing salaries. But of the current funds, she estimated only half goes to teachers, with 20 percent of that reserved for raises.
She does not intend to tinker with the current distribution of the 0.6-cent tax, but the additional 0.4 percent would specifically go toward the $300 million meant for teacher pay raises. How the state would hold school districts accountable for the money was left for another day, but she said “shame on” those who would do otherwise.
The superintendent acknowledged efforts by Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers to address the issue. However, she indicated Ducey’s proposed 0.4 percent pay hike this year and 2 percent over five years would not be enough. Legislators have countered the governor’s plan with a suggested 2 percent increase over two years, but even that is not at the level Douglas sees as necessary.
In a statement following Douglas’ announcement, Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato reiterated the governor’s support for extending Prop. 301 beyond 2020 if done in a way “that makes sense, is good public policy, and most importantly, can actually win support from the legislators and the voters.”
Ducey has recently indicated he is not in favor of increasing taxes, but he would be open to considering a more “modern” Prop. 301, which was first approved in 2000.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said Douglas has it right on the immediate issue of teacher pay, but her proposal will only go so far to improving education.
“We don’t need the public to think this is going to solve all of our problems,” he said.
An additional $400 million would be nice, he explained, but it would be just shy of half the amount needed to make up for what he estimated to be $1.2 billion in cuts since 2008.
Thomas said he hopes Douglas will be open to discussing how to ensure the money is allocated as promised, and that lawmakers will be open to “an adult conversation” about whether they want high-quality education for all students or just a handful – an idea Thomas said the governor subscribes to.
Douglas would not say whether she has support from lawmakers at this point, but she said the sooner she can start a dialogue, the better.
With 2020 as a hard deadline for the “decisive action” she’s championing, Douglas has time to garner support. And she said Prop. 301 renewal has already been met with strong support during conversations with voters. However, others will likely have their own ideas for a voter-approved Prop. 301 extension far ahead of its expiration.
The Legislature could refer the proposal to voters as was done in 2000. Douglas said that would be ideal rather than having to face the recently restricted initiative process.
Ducey has signed into law legislation that outlaws per signature payments for citizen initiatives and disqualifies petitions that do not meet “strict compliance.”
As Douglas gears up to push for her proposal, a hard look at the language she is already using might be in order.
Paul Bentz, a polling consultant for Arizona HighGround, tweeted shortly after the superintendent’s announcement, “When we tested Prop. 301 questions in surveys in the past, the notion of ‘expanding’ it created confusion.”
To be fair, Bentz said in an interview he last tested Prop. 301 in 2012, but the concept of an expansion caused concern about how and why it would be done.
“I think voters have an appetite for increased teacher funding and increased pay,” he said, but the language used in any initiative could make a popular idea more difficult to pass.
Bentz’s recommendation to Douglas: Test the language with voters first to better communicate her goal.