Arizona lawmakers, roundly criticized this year over poorly funded public schools, want to make one thing clear: They’re not the ones responsible for giving teachers raises.
“We don’t set teacher pay. That’s a district decision,” House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said in April. “We’re in the resource business.”
Both statements are technically true. For nearly four decades, Arizona legislators have mostly avoided meddling in the affairs of local school districts, where governing boards, superintendents and principals are given autonomy to spend the funding they receive from the state as they see fit.
That’s not by mistake. Arizona state statute clearly spells out the nature of how the state funds K-12 public schools. A section labeled “purpose” adopted in 1980 details that before, Arizona legislators were responsible for allocating revenues for specific programs such as special education or transportation to individual schools districts.
Instead, the state adopted a block grant system that provides school districts a lump sum, a pot of money that covers a school’s operating expenses. It’s up to district leaders to decide how much of that lump sum is needed for each expense.
And so it has been, at least until the last two years. As the debate over school funding peaked at the Capitol, beginning in 2017 and culminating in a historic teacher strike in May, some Republicans have expressed an interest in taking a more active role in dictating how dollars are spent in school districts.
Led by Gov. Doug Ducey a year ago, the state budget included a line item that bypassed the authority of local school officials to legislate roughly $34 million be spent on teacher pay.
The results were disastrous, and Ducey has since backed away from that maneuver. But as criticism continues to mount against Republican lawmakers, some are still angling for more say in local school spending matters.
A part of the problem is messaging. Ducey in April turned the budget upside down by proposing a 20 percent pay raise for Arizona teachers by 2020. The plan was marketed by the Governor’s Office and by Republican lawmakers as a spending package to boost teacher salaries.
But the nature of how schools are funded in Arizona means Ducey, nor any lawmaker, can legislate such a raise into being. It’s local governing boards that decide how to divy up the lump sum of state funding, and the $272 million is simply another part of that pot of money.
Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said that was purposefully designed for two reasons. Arizona has traditionally favored “local control,” a belief that decision-making is best left to those who know best — local leaders at a level closest to where the decisions will have an impact.
“It had a lot to do with local control, but also — and this was never stated or written anywhere — but it allowed the legislature to not have to get into a fight over how the money’s being spent,” Essigs said of the funding formula adopted in 1980. “Now basically the Legislature can say, ‘That’s on your local governing board.’”
That’s exactly how Ducey and lawmakers responded in 2017, when criticism over school funding first began to peak.
Looking for a scapegoat, the governor accused school officials for the woes of Arizona teachers, whose average salary is among the lowest in the nation. Ducey claimed the problem was that school administrators weren’t budgeting properly, not that the state wasn’t giving districts sufficient funding.
The governor doubled down on that narrative with a Republican-approved budget deal that included a line item for teacher pay raises, a maneuver that bypassed the state’s budget formula for funding K-12 schools.
The plan flopped. School officials rightfully recognized the unreliableness of that funding mechanism. And while they followed the legislative directive to provide the money to teachers, they distributed those dollars as bonuses or stipends, not a raise.
That way, if the Legislature’s desire to fund the line item for higher teacher pay waned, schools wouldn’t be left holding the bag for higher salaries.
Teachers didn’t buy into Ducey’s narrative, either, Essigs said.
“(School officials) can’t spend money that doesn’t exist,” he said. “I think that’s what really changed, and that’s why 50,000 teachers went to the Legislature.”
In January, Ducey was already showing signs of change after chastising local school leaders the year before. His State of the State address praised school officials, and his proposed budget eliminated the line item funding mechanism, opting instead to fold the “raise” of 2017 into the funding formula for schools.
Future raises as part of Ducey’s plan to boost teacher pay 20 percent by 2020 will be funded through the formula as well, ensuring they’re protected from the whims of state lawmakers and boosted each year to adjust for inflation.
That meant giving up the legislative authority to dictate how the additional money for teacher pay is spent.
The budget includes a legislative intent clause, which states that lawmakers want the $272 million in Ducey’s plan in fiscal year 2019 to go to teacher pay. But there’s legally nothing to stop a school district from spending the money elsewhere, if it’s needed.
Ken Hicks, chief finance officer at Peoria Unified School District, said in April that despite the realities of state law, most school officials will try to honor the will of the Legislature.
“We normally try to follow laws and follow intent and follow funding,” Hicks said. “As business people in schools, we follow anything.”
At least one school district is carving a different path. Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo told the Arizona Daily Star he’ll spread the money around to give raises not just for teachers, but all “educators,” including support staff and even janitorial workers.
That means teachers at TUSD won’t get the 9 percent raise that Ducey promised.
That’s why lawmakers like Warren Petersen, a Republican senator from Gilbert, wanted more than just legislative intent.
“There’s a narrative right now that the Legislature dictates teacher salaries and how much money goes to teacher salaries,” he said. “That is not the case.” But if that’s what people want to believe, “then maybe it is time for the Legislature to do what people think is already the case and dictate salaries.”
Along with Republican Sens. Steve Smith, Judy Burges and Sonny Borrelli, Petersen lobbied for language with more teeth. Intent was not enough, they said, to ensure the money would be spent by local officials as the Legislature saw fit.
Petersen said he doesn’t want to take away the executory functions of superintendents to make decisions at the local level, but given the circumstances — the teacher strike — he wanted to go further to make sure those dollars get into teachers’ pockets.
“The battle for teacher pay was won at the Capitol, but the war has to be won at the school districts,” he said, adding that TUSD is a perfect example of how that war may be lost. “The ultimate accountability is the voters of the TUSD. If the voters are OK with using money that was tagged for teacher pay for other things, and heaven forbid admin costs, that’s where the buck stops.”
Essigs said the war is already over. Enough legislators acknowledged the problem is funding provided by the state, not the decisions of local school officials.
And in Tucson, where the superintendent is bucking the Legislature’s intent while the ink on the budget is still drying, educators seem fine with the decision.
Democratic Sen. David Bradley, whose district includes parts of TUSD, said a recent trip to a TUSD kindergarten class leads him to believe that the school employees are OK with sharing the money allocated for teacher pay with other school staffers.
The teacher introduced Bradley to multiple school personnel who aren’t defined as a teacher by Ducey, and therefore wouldn’t benefit from the additional funds intended for teachers if TUSD officials followed the legislative intent.
Their response underscores the message from the #RedforEd movement, which wasn’t solely about teacher pay, Bradley said — it was about better funding for all sorts of educators.
“My initial sense is that because that was kind’ve the talking point, the fact that the superintendent is kind’ve heading in this direction, there seems to be some acceptance of that,” Bradley said.