PHOENIX — Caving to demands from teachers who have protested low pay and school funding shortfalls for weeks, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey rolled out a proposal Thursday promising a net 20 percent raise by 2020 and pledged to push the proposal through the Legislature in the coming weeks.
The Republican governor’s announcement came after more than a month of protests at the state Capitol and at schools across Arizona that were followed by a strike threat early this week. Teachers were encouraged in part by successful teacher walkouts in West Virginia and Oklahoma. Those teachers shocked their state’s leaders by surrounding their Capitols and demanding funding after years of cuts, setting off similar feelings in other Republican states like Arizona where tax cuts have crimped school funding.
“Today is a good day for teachers in Arizona,” Ducey said to open a press briefing.
Teachers who organized a grassroots effort that drew more than 40,000 members were cool to the announcement, saying they wanted details before reacting.
“What he gave us today was just a proposal, it wasn’t legislation, and we don’t know where the money’s coming from and we don’t know if he’s talking about everybody involved in education or just classroom teachers,” Tucson teacher and Arizona Educators United organizer Derek Harris said. “There so many more of us that need it than just classroom teachers.”
‘A good-faith gesture’
Ducey was vague about where the cash would come from, only saying a growing economy and lower spending in other areas unexpectedly freed up $274 million this year. As recently as Tuesday, he said he was sticking with his plan to give teachers just a 1 percent raise in the coming year.
A school advocate who helped block a Ducey-backed voucher proposal was on the stage behind him and said she believes the teachers will get on board — if the proposal isn’t changed at the Legislature.
“We’re all unified in that if this plays out the way that it’s being said today then this is a major step forward,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona. “There’s a lot more to do, but it’s a good-faith gesture that we think is something to continue working together on.”
The developments come after Arizona teachers and others held “walk-ins” at more than 1,000 schools Wednesday to draw attention to their demands.
Ducey refused to meet with teachers, calling their protests “political theater, but changed his tune after teachers threatened a walkout and said a strike date could be set soon.
“It was interesting to see that a few days ago the governor had dismissed us as political theater and now he’s impressed,” Harris said, while noting the group would wait for follow-through. “At this point there’s not really anything to trust.”
Among the lowest paid in nation
Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, with elementary instructors earning a median 2017 wage of $43,280 and high school teachers $46,470, the 3rd and 6th lowest in the nation, respectively, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers actually rank 49th in earnings and high school teachers 48th.
Ducey says the average teacher earned $48,372 last year. Under his proposal, average teacher pay would go to $58,130 by the start of 2020, Ducey said, without taking money he promised earlier in the year to restore previous funding cuts.
The teacher pay boost will cost $274 million for the coming school year and $650 million by 2020 and go into the base school formula that increases for inflation each year.
The proposal rolled out by the Republican governor Thursday doesn’t increase funding for other school needs. But he already proposed $100 million in his budget plan as a start to restoring nearly $400 million cuts made earlier in the decade — including $117 million he cut in 2015.
“We know that there are other needs in public education, so there will be no shell games,” Ducey said. “This investment will be in addition to the $371 million in district additional assistance which will provide flexible funding for Arizona schools’ most pressing needs — fixing school infrastructure, modernizing curriculum, school buses and updating classroom technologies.
Growing economy credited
Earlier Thursday, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard outlined a plan to boost teacher pay by 6 percent in the coming school year with annual increases that could lead to a 23 percent increase at the end of five years. However, the proposal does it by redirecting cash already committed or planned for school districts in coming years, so school districts would feel the squeeze.
A growing economy is boosting state revenues and cutting caseloads in social services agencies, freeing up cash for teacher raises, Ducey said. He’s also said he would cancel some of the planned spending in his budget and use savings from government efficiencies.
Mesnard stood with Ducey as his fellow Republican rolled out his plan, and later said his proposal was meant to show more teacher pay was possible.
“I think what’s very clear is that we all share the same priorities,” Mesnard said. “We want to get more money into the classroom, more money into teacher pay, and it’s always been about how we go about achieving that.”
Arizona PTA president Beth Simek, who supported the statewide activist movement and was involved with the discussions for the governor’s proposal, called it “a huge step forward.”
She said the governor is meeting the grassroots activists halfway.
“The governor saw that this was a huge priority,” she said. “He saw the #RedforEd movement; he heard what we had to say.”