Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, and with many parents in Arizona and across the country trying to teach our kids at home, we’ve never appreciated our incredible professional educators more. Although many Arizona lawmakers are in the same boat, will their appreciation show?
Public schools provide invaluable services, empowering Arizona’s children to thrive — and that takes funding. There is still time to make this happen. Legislators have until July 1 to augment next year’s budget. And they must: The bare-bones budget signed by Gov. Doug Ducey late last month doesn’t account for the fact that all Arizona students will be returning to school with greater academic and emotional needs than they would have had in a typical year. When we re-open, keeping students safe by reducing class sizes, minimizing testing and increasing services will require massive investments.
The new budget meets the 2018 teacher pay-raise promise (keeping Arizona in the bottom five nationally), but simultaneously redirects money from sales taxes already meant for school funding. It restores around 3 percent of the over $2 billion in District Additional Assistance funding missing from schools since 2009. And it includes roughly $70 million for a Results-based Funding program (in a year without testing – what sense does that make?) almost entirely benefiting wealthier schools which need the resources less. This is an insult to teachers and students who will be shortchanged. Shuffling existing funding around and adding a few million dollars here and there is nothing to be proud of, even in a year like 2020, considering the tax cuts the Legislature pushed through and other ways we’ve failed to invest in the state when we had the chance. In Arizona, this has become an embarrassing status quo. Arizona communities need more than words and hashtags — especially now — because our children and communities need more.
In the midst of this crisis, it couldn’t be more clear how critical our public schools are. They ensure all school-age children have access to meals and display incredible agility working with families in a wide range of circumstances to support the academic progress of students statewide. This is happening despite Arizona’s paralyzing “digital divide:” thousands of Arizona families and communities lack not only funding for technology, but basic internet infrastructure, due to our lawmakers’ chronic underinvestment. The damage of that neglect is finally evident even to state leaders who have ignored these inequities for decades.
It’s time to show our professional educators and public schools how much we appreciate everything they do. We learned from the last financial crisis that we must invest, not cut. It’s time to fully restore DAA, which pays for everything from textbooks and desks to lunch tables and building maintenance. It’s time to increase school maintenance funds via the School Facilities Board, which lawmakers have funded at about 20 percent of what’s legally required, so schools can finally repair roofs, buses, and air conditioners. It’s time to start restoring the $4.5 billion in missing funds that our schools have been denied since 2009. And most importantly, it’s time to stop creating and expanding a range of unaccountable privatization schemes that divert hundreds of millions of tax dollars into private pockets and other states’ private schools.
Just two months ago, Republicans in the Legislature (minus Sen. Heather Carter, a reliable Republican champion for education) passed a law to send Arizona tax dollars to private, religious schools in California, New Mexico and other states, while at the same time blocking investments in air conditioning, trained teachers and updated textbooks for Arizona schools. If lawmakers won’t listen to us, it’s up to us to usher in change. Hopefully this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week (and November 2020) brought a new brand of teacher appreciation to the state Capitol: one that’s backed up with action.
Beth Lewis is a fifth grade teacher, mother and cofounder of Save Our Schools Arizona.