Republican House leadership is backing a plan to give teachers a 6-percent pay bump next year at the expense of Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposal to restore cuts to K-12 school capital funding.
Buffeted by protesting teachers, who have threatened to strike if the Legislature doesn’t provide a sizable increase in funding for Arizona public schools to bankroll salary hikes, Republican lawmakers see the proposal as a means of changing the narrative that state legislators have failed to provide teachers a decent wage.
The plan boasts of a cumulative 24-percent pay raise for teachers over six years. To do so, the Legislature would renege on a pledge made by Ducey to restore cuts made to public school monies used for capital expenses, like new school buses, textbooks and facility maintenance.
Legislators would bypass the decision makers in school districts to ensure that all available dollars go to teacher pay, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said on KAET-TV’s Arizona Horizon Wednesday evening.
“That was one of the reasons we put out a proposal yesterday that essentially did just that,” Mesnard said. “It took money where it was going to go in a pot where they could pretty much do what they want with it… and instead put hundreds of millions of dollars into something called the classroom site fund, which is dedicated to teacher pay.”
Mesnard said the proposal addresses the gripes of protesting teachers, who have asked for an immediate 20-percent raise.
“We don’t set teacher pay. That’s a district decision. We’re in the resource business,” he said.
The proposal from GOP leaders misses the point protesters are trying to make, said Dana Naimark, president of Arizona Children’s Action Alliance. There isn’t enough funding available to address all the needs schools have, be it salaries, broken air conditioning systems or old textbooks.
“To try to dangle that in front of teachers saying we’re promising you a 24 percent pay raise I think is pretty disingenuous,” she said. “They’re just moving the shells around the table. The point is, we need more revenues to invest in schools.”
Flanked by local school officials, Ducey in January announced the budget proposal to immediately put $100 million for the coming school year back towards “district additional assistance,” and to continue to increase those funds over the next five years.
The offer came as a coalition of school groups and educators have sued the state for failing to meet constitutional obligations for capital needs. Ducey’s plan convinced some to back away from the lawsuit.
The proposal from GOP leaders takes that $100 million away in the upcoming school year and places it in a fund designated almost exclusively for teacher salaries.
Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said the plan is popular among some legislative Republicans.
“There’s a narrative right now that the legislature dictates teacher salaries and how much money goes to teacher salaries. And you’re hearing people say that it is the legislature that does that. That is not the case,” he said.
But if that’s what people want to believe, Petersen said, “then maybe it is time for the legislature to do what people think is already the case and dictate salaries.”
Over the next five years, state budget analysts project the proposal would divert nearly $400 million from capital funds, as proposed by Ducey, to the classroom site fund, which primarily is used for teacher pay raises and merit pay increases.
That would kick start in 2018 with a $107 million appropriation to the fund, including the $100 million in capital funding Ducey proposed and another $7 million for schools that don’t receive state aid.
The GOP-led plan also accounts for the second year of a 2 percent pay raise, a two-year plan approved by the Legislature in 2017, and basic inflationary increases to K-12 funding — dollars that are controlled by law through funding formulas. But the plan assumes that, going forward, 48 percent of those inflationary budget increases would be used for teacher salaries.
Their proposal also accounts for a recent change to Proposition 301, the six-tenths of a cent sales tax extension approved by the Legislature weeks ago. That change would add another $64 million to the teacher pay, but not until 2021.
All told, budget analysts estimate the plan would boost teacher pay by $829.2 million by 2022, a 24 percent cumulative increase.
The proposal would still leave K-12 school districts with a $400 million budget hole for capital expenses in five years, said Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
And it could threaten the governor’s efforts to settle a capital funding lawsuit.
“(Ducey) met with school districts, had a big press conference where all these superintendents from school districts stood behind him, and he said, ‘I’m restoring those cuts,’” Essigs said. “Obviously this is a slap in the face to him, because they’re taking what he had developed as a plan and got consensus and got agreement for and just throwing it out the window.”