As the Arizona superintendent of public instruction, I have traveled around the state three times on my annual “We Are Listening Tours.” These tours give fellow Arizonans the opportunity to tell me what’s going right, what’s going wrong and the chance to propose possible solutions for everything pertaining to K-12 education.
No matter what corner of the state I have visited, or whether the people I have spoken to were moderate, liberal, conservative, Republicans, independents or Democrats, the issue of teacher pay raises has overwhelmingly been the No. 1 topic Arizonans believe needs to be addressed.
At its very heart, education only occurs between a student and their teacher and a student and their family. Having the very best teacher in the classroom with our kids is the most effective education reform possible.
There is no doubt that we are facing a teacher shortage crisis here in Arizona. Recently, ASU’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy published a report that detailed the extent of that crisis:
Arizona annually is losing more teachers than bachelor of education degrees produced by its three state universities.
42 percent of Arizona teachers hired in 2013 left the profession within three years.
Arizona elementary school teacher pay is the lowest in the nation.
High school teacher pay ranks 49th of the 50 states.
When adjusted for inflation, elementary school teachers here are paid 11 percent less than in 2001. Arizona secondary teachers are being paid 10 percent less.
It is critical that we attract and retain the most talented teachers to our most important profession. If any business lost 42 percent of its new talent every three years it would be unsustainable. That is why I‘m advocating for permanently extending and expanding Proposition 301 to a full one cent. Expanding Proposition 301 would generate an additional $400 million per year, which would result in an immediate $5,000 pay raise for all teachers and $100 million dollars for maintaining school facilities.
One of the benefits of living in Arizona is that we pay lower taxes than many other states in the country. However, due to the unique demographics of our population, and the massive amount of land owned by the federal government, we also have a lower tax base than many states. Although our state has roughly the same population as Massachusetts, Arizona just passed a $9.8 billion budget, while Massachusetts’ budget was $39 billion last year.
I don’t envy the governor and the Legislature for being responsible for our state’s budget. When budget negotiations began earlier this year, the Legislature was only able to identify about $50 million in new, available funding after taking into account all of the state’s ongoing needs. I applaud both the governor and the Legislature for making education their top priority. However, it is clear the General Fund will never, by itself, generate the funding necessary to have the best education system in the nation.
The result is that funding for our education system is highly reliant on the swings of the economy. When a recession hits, the Legislature must decide which programs are eliminated in order to ensure that our state remains in good financial standing. When the economy makes an upturn, legislators have to measure new spending to help prepare for the next economic downturn. This constant swing of ups and downs means that it is difficult for any real financial investments to take root and yield a positive return.
My proposal, while not recession proof, would allow for a more stable stream of income to go directly to the two biggest needs facing our state: teacher pay and school capital investment.
Arizona can have it both ways. Not only can we continue to ensure our state is one of the top destinations for businesses looking for a new home, we can also make strategic investments in teacher pay and school facilities.
I understand that many Arizonans feel like they have heard this all before. It seems every time a new big idea comes up on the ballot it is labeled as “more money for teachers” or “additional funding for schools,” but then a couple years later we hear that the money isn’t actually going where we thought it was. I am just as frustrated, which is why I am making my plan as simple as possible. I want voters to know that this strategic investment is going where I say it is.
My plan only has two beneficiaries: teachers and schools. By including a non-supplanting clause in the expansion language, this will ensure that the new money is used to supplement the funding that is currently in place, as opposed to supplanting those funds. The new teacher pay funding added in my proposal will be earmarked for base teacher compensation, which will ensure the money is distributed among all teachers. Arizonans deserve to know where their money is going and who benefits from it.
A strategic investment like this will help prevent the steady flow of teachers from leaving the profession or working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. It will also provide our School Facilities Board with the flexibility needed to help more than just a few schools in desperate need of repair.
While I believe in low taxes, I also believe in the voters. I would not be doing my duty as the lone statewide elected education official in our state if I did not advocate on behalf of my constituents and let them have their say at the ballot box. I hope you will join me in this discussion as I move this proposal forward. Our kids and teachers are too important to wait any longer. Our state’s future depends on it.
— Diane Douglas is the Arizona superintendent of public instruction.