Top Republicans are huddling to see if they can reach an accord over the issue of teacher pay ahead of Thursday’s strike deadline, potentially forestalling or at least undermining the walkout.
Senate President Steve Yarbrough told Capitol Media Services Monday there is “unease” among many House and Senate Republicans with predictions by Gov. Doug Ducey that a 19 percent pay hike for teachers by 2020 can be enacted and money from a special assistance fund for schools can be restored, all without a tax hike. Ducey contends that there will be sufficient strong economic growth to both generate new tax revenues and reduce state spending on health and social service programs.
He said that’s why some GOP lawmakers are holding out until they can identify firm sources of revenue “to help us get to this very ambitious goal.”
But whether anything that lawmakers approve is enough to avert a walkout remains to be seen.
The teacher pay plan, even if approved, does not address other demands by Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association. That includes pay hikes for support staff like teaching specialists, counselors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
And nothing in the governor’s proposal specifically addresses restoring the more than $1 billion that has been taken in state aid to schools in the last decade, as well as a demand to eventually get teacher pay here up to the national average.
“We are very cognizant of a wide variety of wishes,” Yarbrough said.
“But we’re trying to get the really big nut cracked at the moment,” he said, that being teacher pay.
At this point, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said lawmakers will do what they do — and the education groups will do what they want, no matter what. And if that means a teacher strike, he said, that can’t be the prime concern of legislators.
“Few people down here are looking at Thursday as any kind of deadline,” Mesnard told Capitol Media Services.
“The belief here is that Thursday’s going to happen, no matter what,” he said. And he said that pretty much whatever legislators approve “will not be enough in the eyes of some.”
Mesnard, however, suggested he thinks there may be some cracks developing in the #RedForEd movement, particularly now that Ducey has put a plan for teacher pay on the table.
“I think this movement was founded specifically on teacher pay,” he said, echoing Yarbrough’s belief that has to be the focus of legislative action. “And now some are trying to move the goalposts a bit.”
But AEA President Joe Thomas said education groups have been clear from the start that this has always been about the larger issue of adequate school funding, of which teacher pay is just a part.
And Thomas said if Ducey and GOP leaders think they’ve got a plan to at least start addressing the issue, they need to communicate that to the AEA and AEU if they truly want to avoid a strike. But to date, the governor has steadfastly refused to meet with Thomas or Noah Karvelis, one of the AEU organizers.
Scarpinato declined to speculate whether approval of a teacher pay plan would forestall a strike.
Thomas said people are willing to listen if there’s a real proposal.
“Educators look at new data,” he said.
But to this point, Thomas said, there’s little to convince them that Ducey’s plan is financially sustainable.
Even the governor himself is not relying entirely on an improving economy. His plan involves decisions not to fund certain other priorities like additional dollars for skilled nursing care, a border crimes unit and even reducing the debt.
And it even counts on generating cash through a new state-run keno game.
For educators, however, the offer to hike teacher pay is not enough because there are no dollars specifically to improve pay for support staff like counselors, classroom specialists, janitors and bus drivers.
Ducey, for his part, said restoring funds for additional district assistance — the money lawmakers refused to fund in prior years — will free up cash for those employees. But those dollars are supposed to go to things like computers, books, buses and some repairs, all things that have not been fully funded in years, resulting in some cases in out-of-date books that finally could get replaced and repairs being made that have gone ignored.
The education groups also want some plan to not only get student funding back to where it was a decade ago — it is less than that now, even before inflation is taken into account — but also to get teacher pay up to the national average.
Expect More Arizona, a group that lobbies for more education funding, says the current median for all teachers in the state is $44,900. That, the organization says, ranks Arizona No. 49 with a national median of $57,160.
The movement is picking up support from other quarters.
Julie Erfle, spokeswoman for AZ Schools Now, said her education support group supports not only the movement but understands why educators have chosen to walk out.
“A decade of severe budget cuts have left our classrooms in disrepair, our teachers demoralized, and our students shortchanged,” she said in a prepared statement Monday, calling on Ducey and legislative leaders to find “sustainable, permanent and equitable solutions” for schools.
“Anything less is unacceptable,” Erfle said.
The last-minute push to find a deal — and possibly avert a strike — comes on the heels of Ducey striking out at legislative inaction on Friday by vetoing 10 of their bills.
“There’s no doubt that there’s some pretty strong feelings in the caucus about the vetoed bills,” Mesnard said. “So there’s a lot of conversation happening among caucus members.”
House Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, called the governor’s actions “politics over policy.”
But the move appears to have had the desired results, paving the way for the negotiations — at least among Ducey and legislators.
“The governor feels very strongly that we need to get this teacher pay proposal over the finish line,” said Ducey press aide Daniel Scarpinato.
He said school districts are currently putting together their budgets and offering contracts to teachers for the coming year.
“So there is some real urgency in getting it done,” Scarpinato said. And with talks now underway, Ducey has apparently relented: On Monday he signed three Republican bills.