A first-term state lawmaker wants to expand the Teachers Academy program that provides scholarships to prospective public school teachers to students attending private and religious colleges.
Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, said there is a pressing need for teachers, especially with many of those in the classroom at or approaching retirement age. And he said that private programs like those run at the Christian Grand Canyon University can help fill that need.
But Gress is getting opposition from Democratic lawmakers who point out the state is not now providing enough cash to fund the demand from students in education programs at the state’s three universities and the community colleges that have teaching programs. And until that happens, they say, any available dollars should go there first.
The debate comes amid a parallel legal fight between Arizona Christian University and the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix.
Members of the district governing board voted in February not to approve a new agreement to allow ACU students to work as student teachers after some board members expressed concern about the policies of the university on marriage.
Specifically, ACU teaches that marriage is solely between one man and one woman, something included in a statement of faith that students must sign. Washington school board members said they feared that would impair the district’s defense of equality policies for LGBTQ staff and students.
That fight is now playing out in federal court, with ACU asking a judge to rule that the decision by the school board violates the university’s constitutionally protected freedoms.
Gress’ bill, if approved, would make ACU students in their education program eligible for the same scholarships of public funds.
He said, though, there is no reason to exclude ACU students from the Teachers Academy program — or from continuing to be student teachers in the district.
“They have no evidence whatsoever that teachers from this school have engaged in discriminatory practices because of their own personal religious beliefs,” Gress said.
The more immediate political problem for Gress, however, is getting his HB 2428 to Gov. Katie Hobbs — and getting her to sign it.
Lawmakers created the Teachers Academy in 2017 at the behest of then-Gov. Doug Ducey. The program provides one year of college tuition for students at public community colleges and universities in education programs in exchange for each year of teaching in an Arizona public school.
What Gress wants to do is expand scholarship eligibility to students attending private colleges offering education degrees.
Only thing is, the $15 million put in the program already is used up every year, creating waiting lists at the schools attending public universities whose students already are eligible.
In her budget request, Hobbs has proposed adding another $15 million. The Republican-controlled Legislature has yet to act on that — or any part of her spending plan.
But estimates are that just adding eligible students from Grand Canyon University alone could eat up $17 million.
Meredith Critchfield, GCU’s dean of the College of Education, told lawmakers her school’s program can help fill the ongoing need.
She said there are about 3,000 students now enrolled in programs designed to get them certified as teachers. And of that, Critchfield said, 80% to 90% go on to teach in public schools.
What adding GCU and other private schools to the program would do, she said, is encourage those students, once they graduate, to stay in Arizona.
Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, said that Arizona State University alone has a waiting list between 150 and 300 hoping to get into the program there.
“I know GCU is a great university,” she said during a legislative hearing on the measure.
“I think they do a really great job.” Schwiebert said. “But as the body called to make decisions about where we’re spending money, I feel like our priority needs to be with our public schools that need to be held accountable.”
And what that means, she said, is having oversight over the programs to ensure they are training as many teachers as want to be in the program.
“And right now, they don’t,” Schwiebert said.
Gress acknowledged the waiting lists. And he said his measure isn’t meant to take away from the money already allocated to public universities but to add money to it for the students at private schools.
Only thing is, HB 2428 includes no new money. And as the legislation now sits, Democrats remain unconvinced.
“U of A, NAU, ASU and our community colleges have accredited teaching programs that have waiting lists to use these funds,” said Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson.
She said her opposition has nothing to do with the quality of the program at GCU.
“This bill is about using public funds in private colleges,” Gutierrez said, pointing out that, at least for the moment, there are no additional dollars in HB 2428. The result, she said, would be taking cash away from those public colleges that already can’t meet the demand.
And even with the request by Hobbs for an additional $15 million, doubling the available scholarships to $30 million, Gutierrez said that does not mean the funds should go to students at private education colleges.
“We must prioritize our public universities,” she said, if the state is to fill the need for more teachers in Arizona schools.
Rep. Laura Terech, D-Phoenix, said she, too, could not support opening up the program to private universities.
“I think we need to start with our public institutions first,” she said.
That opposition from legislative Democrats foretells what could be the biggest hurdle for Gress: getting the measure signed by Hobbs.
“I don’t think she would sign the bill in its current form,” Gress conceded.
What it may take, he said, is putting enough money in the budget to both give the governor the $15 million she wants to expand the program at public universities plus additional cash for GCU and the other private schools.
“We should fund both,” he said, meaning at least $30 million in new money to bring the total allocation up to $45 million. And that would put the governor in the position of having to agree to expand eligibility to private universities if she wants the additional cash for the public ones.
Gress said such an agreement would be in the state’s best interest, calling the program “wildly successful.”
For the moment, though, the Senate has not yet scheduled a final vote on HB 2428. Gress said he presumes it will not advance until there also is a deal to add that additional $30 million to avoid a veto.
Even if there is a deal, Gutierrez said solving the problem of the state’s teacher shortage goes beyond providing scholarships.
“We don’t have a lack of people in these programs,” she said.
“We have a lack of certified teachers who are willing to be underpaid and often disrespected,” Gutierrez said. “And that is the problem we should be addressing right now, not using more public money in the private sector.”