Teachers union calls on lawmakers to invest $2.2 billion in Arizona schools
Figure is only about half of what’s needed to bring Az schools up to national average
Arizona is ranked one of the worst states for school spending, and teachers are urging lawmakers to rectify that through increased funding, unveiling a $2.2 billion “Educators’ Budget” on Wednesday.
Compiled by the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Arizona Education Association, it includes more money for teacher salaries, health care plans, special education, school repairs and mental health counselors.
The budget proposal comes on the heels of a letter sent this week to legislative leaders by education advocacy groups sounding the alarm over the $4.5 billion deficit Arizona schools face every year when compared to the rest of the nation. Pro-public school organizations, including Save Our Schools Arizona, Stand for Children Arizona and Children’s Action Alliance, noted that cuts made during the Great Recession have been backfilled through legislative channels, but the state remains 47th in the nation, having moved up just one spot since 2008.
Last year, lawmakers approved a record $1 billion investment in K-12 education, but more help is needed and educators are overburdened and overstretched, Glendale high school teacher Amber Gould said on Wednesday. The starting salary for teachers in the Grand Canyon State is just over $40,000, more than $20,000 less than the national average. The “Educators’ Budget” calls for $580 million to increase teacher salaries across the state.
“We can’t keep asking educators to fill gaps with our own time, our own energy and our own passion — gaps that should be filled with funding from our state,” Gould said.
Margaret Chaney, a history teacher from Tucson who has taught for more than 20 years, added that she’s seen more colleagues abandon their work in recent years — and a rise in anti-teacher rhetoric at the state Capitol only fuels the departures. As of January, 2,890 teacher positions were vacant, and more than 1,800 teachers severed their own employment contracts.
“Far too many are leaving the profession faster and earlier than previous years because of low salaries, underfunded schools and a lack of respect,” Chaney said.
Aspiring teacher and Arizona State University student Elena Slaboda warned that failing to resolve the crisis will have dire consequences for future teachers, who could be left without experienced mentors to guide them through their early years.
The teachers’ budget includes a $600 million request to bolster teacher health care plans, which AEA President Marisol Garcia acknowledged is a big ask, but said is a critical step towards convincing teachers to stay in their posts. A majority of teachers are women, she said, and they struggle to afford coverage for their children as well as themselves. A bill currently being considered at the legislature would create a five-year program that subsidizes health care premiums for teachers with dependents in an effort to research possible retention strategies.
The union’s proposal also includes funding for full-day kindergarten, which was defunded in 2010 due to strain from the Great Recession. The state pays for half-day kindergarten, and to provide a full length teaching day, schools are forced to make up the difference.
“Every single student that we see in kindergarten is only being paid for by (the state) half, yet they’re not 0.5 kids and they don’t have 0.5 teachers,” said Garcia.
She acknowledged that the union’s budget requests are likely to face an uphill battle in a Republican-controlled legislature that has shown little interest in increasing education funding. Last year’s investments were hard won, the result of a last-minute bipartisan deal to pass a budget, but this year’s legislature is more conservative, with lawmakers increasingly demanding transparency and accountability from schools in exchange for funding.
But, Garcia said, having a pro-education leader like Gov. Katie Hobbs at the table is heartening for teachers across the state. Hobbs’ executive budget proposal called for increasing education funding by $273.7 million, by repealing the universal voucher expansion — a move that the AEA supports to fund its budget proposal but that Republican lawmakers vehemently oppose.
The expansion, initially estimated to cost the state around $33 million, is expected to reach a $200 million dollar price tag for just this year, and nearly $400 million next year, as private school applicants have swarmed the grant program.
Some of the “Educators’ Budget,” Garcia noted, has its roots in initiatives already approved by lawmakers, which should help to convince them to implement parts of it, at least. It includes increases for special education funding and opportunity weight, which aids schools with higher percentages of low-income students, both categories that were added to the state education budget last year.
The issues facing schools, teachers and students in Arizona are nonpartisan, Garcia said, and lawmakers must work to resolve them sooner rather than later.
“This is not political, this is real life,” she said. “This is what’s happening in our schools and in our communities.”
Tunya Johnston is a paraprofessional at Mountain View High School who showed up to the Capitol on Wednesday in support of the teachers she helps every day. Her school district prohibits paraprofessionals from filling in for teacher vacancies, instead opting to combine classes, which she said can be just as disruptive. Education in Arizona needs fixing, but schools simply don’t have the tools to do it on their own.
“You can’t fill a hole in the ship without the equipment to do it,” she said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.