A Republican candidate’s bold pitch: Arizona should give all teachers a $10,000 pay raise
A Republican legislative candidate is proposing a $10,000 pay raise for every teacher in Arizona, but the president of the state’s largest teacher’s union isn’t convinced.
Matt Gress, a candidate for the state House of Representatives aiming to represent District 4 in northeast Phoenix, announced his “Pay Teachers First” plan on Monday, centered around an immediate and permanent $10,000 pay raise for Arizona teachers. Gress, a former teacher who now works as Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget director, said salaries are a pressing concern for teachers in Arizona, which consistently ranks near the bottom in teacher compensation.
“When I was a teacher, I struggled to make ends meet and was (paying) out-of-pocket (for) many resources needed for my students. Teachers don’t go into this profession to get rich, but they also aren’t expected to live in poverty, either. Our students rightfully deserve the best education, and our teachers rightfully deserve to be valued,” Gress said in a statement on his campaign website.
But Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, has heard politicians make promises before — particularly in election years.
“Every even year, this happens. Potential candidates decide to say something, propose something that sounds amazing. What happens is that, once they’re elected, they change their tune very quickly,” she said.
With as much as 88% of voters in support of increasing teacher pay, campaign announcements to do so are easy bait, Garcia said. Her organization remains skeptical of the follow-through, especially when legislators have historically worked against school funding initiatives.
“The folks that (Gress) labeled as being very much in support of this are the same people that did everything they could to stop (Proposition) 208,” she said.
Prop. 208, a tax increase approved by voters in 2020 to increase school funding, was struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court after GOP legislative leaders challenged it. Before the case was decided, Republican legislators in February stalled on a vote to allow schools to spend money in their budgets, which would have shut down Arizona schools, out of concern it would allow Prop. 208 to go into effect.
The AEA, Garcia said, has proposed solutions to resolve the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, with little support from legislators. In May, it proposed a $1.7 billion increase in school funding that gained no traction. Schools later faced a frustrating uphill battle when legislators were initially unwilling to mobilize the state’s record surplus to benefit schools.
Another point of contention for Garcia is that Gress’ statement appears to take aim at administrative spending, declaring that the money wouldn’t go to “bureaucracy.”
The stance that teacher salaries have suffered because of rising administrative costs is misinformed, Garcia said. School administrators make decisions that affect everyday functions.
“They’re the folks that make sure my son crosses the street safely, or who make sure my son gets a healthy lunch. (They) make sure my son has technology that works, and that he has a counselor available,” she said.
In an interview with the Arizona Mirror on Tuesday, Gress acknowledged that school administration plays an important role in the education of students across the state. But the greatest resources for students are their teachers, he said, and that resource is endangered.
“We have a teacher workforce shortage. We have a teacher crisis. The state needs to step up with some bold action. The most effective input into a child’s education is at the front of the classroom,” he said.
There are as many as 2,000 teacher vacancies and 800 unfilled special education teacher openings.
To qualify for the extra funding in Gress’ proposal, schools must report information about academics, budgeting and spending to the auditor general. Garcia said this is simply another example of villainizing public schools over a supposed lack of transparency. (School budgets are approved by school boards at public meetings, and boards make regular reports on what education or budgeting decisions are being made.)
“That information is readily available to anybody who requests it,” she said, “That’s another example of politicizing this, saying that we don’t know how the money is being spent. Yes, we do — it’s a public institution.”
Requiring schools to compile data in yet another format, Garcia said, takes administrative manpower that incurs time and money, which Gress’ plan doesn’t include funding for.
Gress disagreed, saying that the data that schools currently compile is too difficult for parents to understand. Fiscal jargon and complex spreadsheets combine to make school budgets “opaque” to the average reader, he said.
Asked whether he would consider including funding in the plan to pay schools for the extra responsibility or create a new position, Gress pointed out that schools already have plenty of employees and the information should be easy to gather, given that it’s state law to compile it. He added that the legislature increased school budgets a record amount this year, allowing them to theoretically cover the cost.
“Schools have extensive business offices, and they’re already required to report this data,” he said.
The only difference, Gress said, is that the report will be sent to the Auditor General.
Among the supporters of Gress’ plan is an elementary school board president, but no teachers. Garcia said the AEA, which represents thousands of educators across the state, wasn’t consulted to help draft the plan. And she said Gress didn’t respond to the AEA in May when the organization reached out to every candidate with a questionnaire and interviews for endorsement consideration.
Gress argued that he has ample enough experience to craft a successful proposal without input from the AEA. Five years working with stakeholders as a budget director at the state Capitol and time as a school board member — he was on the Madison Elementary School District board from 2017 until 2021 — means he understands all sides.
“I’m very familiar with working with teachers and stakeholders, having been a former school board member. I understand this issue very well and have been able to hear from thousands of Arizonans who want their teachers paid more,” he said.
Despite her concerns, Garcia said she’s still willing to sit down and work with anyone interested in making a difference for Arizona classrooms.
“The table is big and wide of people that have ideas for helping end this teacher exodus and keep people here,” she said, “We will sit at any table with anyone that is focused on great public schools for every Arizona student.”
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.