House Republicans give early approval to teacher raises

House Republicans give early approval to teacher raises

teacher pay, Gress, legislature, House, Senate, K-12 public schools
Arizona House Republicans on Monday gave preliminary approval to $10,000 per year raises for public school teachers despite objections of Democrats who say the plan is a fake attempt they know GOP lawmakers can’t fund in the long term. (Photo by Pexels)

Arizona House Republicans on Monday gave preliminary approval to $10,000 per year raises for public school teachers over the objections of Democrats who say the plan is a fake effort they know GOP lawmakers can’t fund in the long term.

But proponents of the measure by Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, said the pay boost will go a long way toward erasing low teacher pay that has helped lead to a statewide teacher shortage.

Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, noted that a high school in her district is so short of teachers that a biology class has 77 students due to problems finding enough classroom instructors.

“I think it is incumbent upon this Legislature to do all they can to support teachers to make sure that teachers are paid what they deserve, paid for a good job that they are doing,” Martinez said. “We can not stand by as a Legislature and say that our teachers are paid so much that they would not value a $10,000 raise, and we need to do everything we can to attract teachers.”

The measure is designed to bring Arizona teacher pay up to the mid-point of the national average and erase Arizona’s standing as among the states with the lowest pay in the nation. Low teacher pay has been cited as a major reason for growing teacher vacancies in public K-12 schools.

Gress, House, legislation, teacher pay
Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix

But it’s not that simple.

The price tag by 2025 is estimated to hit yearly $700 million.

Only thing is, there’s nothing in HB 2800 to require the state to continue the funding beyond that. Yet the legislation prohibits schools from reducing a teacher’s base salary in future years if the state dollars do not develop, a move that would leave local taxpayers holding the financial bag.

And even if the dollars are there, HB 2800 does not address the fact that Arizona has a voter-approved constitutional spending limit on education.

Adopted in 1980, it adjusts for inflation and student growth. But the costs of education have grown so much that the state had bumped up against that cap repeatedly.

And if the cap is in place, schools won’t be able to spend the money they get.

Lawmakers for the past two years agreed to one-year waivers of the cap to deal with prior increases in education funding. Democrats, however, say that’s hardly an assurance and proposed an amendment, defeated by Republicans, to put the question of repealing the cap on the 2024 ballot.

And then there’s the fact that Gress, at the last minute, tacked on some new provisions.

The bill now includes a new reporting provision contained in another measure that has failed to advance. And it incorporates a new rule in another measure requiring schools to post on their websites every lesson plan and all learning materials teachers will use.

Both are designed to get support from conservative Republicans.

“That was putting together votes for the underlying bill,” Gress said. “Our goal was to assemble policy priorities for members.”

But Gress also agreed to eliminate a requirement in his initial proposal that had excluded teachers who have small classes — like special education instructors — from the pay boost. That was needed to gain support from both sides.

Still, there are issues.

House Democrats said the lesson plan posting requirement will unnecessarily boost teachers’ already-heavy workload, burden districts with new mandates on their computer staff and potentially violate copyright laws on textbooks.

“This unnecessary requirement will add more to Arizona teachers’ already heavy workload and may even push more educators out of the classroom,” Rep. Laura Terech, D-Phoenix, who has worked as a teacher, said during debate on the measure. “It suggests the Legislature doesn’t trust us to do our work, when in fact there are already multiple ways in which teachers work with parents through email newsletters, phone calls, parent-teacher conferences and curriculum nights.”

Gress said in an interview after the bill received initial approval that he joins with Democrats in seeking a change to the school spending limit. And he said he was actually heartened to see the contents of that failed Democratic floor amendment because it lays the groundwork for an eventual compromise that would both boost teacher pay by using a dedicated fund and increasing transparency.

“What I thought was very encouraging with the (Democratic) amendment is that they agreed with the concept that the state should direct the money to the teachers and to other classroom personnel,” Gress said. “I think that’s a positive development.”

The measure now requires a formal vote by the full House before heading to the Senate for action. And because of the anticipated $700 million annual cost to give teachers a 20% pay raise by 2025, it is intimately entangled with state budget negotiations, which are just now turning serious between majority Republican lawmakers and new Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs.

Hobbs has signaled with a series of vetoes and comments in the past two months that she is looking for comprehensive budget negotiations rather than piecemeal legislation that addresses individual topics.