It took statewide protests and the very real threat of a teachers’ strike for Gov. Doug Ducey to do an about-face and announce a plan he says will give teachers a 20 percent raise within three years.
Nine percent could be added to paychecks as early as August, he said.
It’s a shrewd political move. The #RedForEd movement galvanized quickly, getting teachers, school staffers, parents, students and community members to make the annual quixotic push for increased school funding into a real force to reckon with. The group has been demanding a 20 percent raise for educators — and they need it. Arizona is among the last, if not the last, in national rankings in teacher pay.
Ducey, a Republican, has portrayed himself as the “education governor,” and no doubt didn’t want to campaign for re-election against a backdrop of educators on the picket line, frustrated parents and the negative economic impact of an anti-education national reputation.
Ducey had said earlier in the week that he wouldn’t meet with teachers, or the movement’s leaders — that he was talking to “decision makers.” To add insult to financial injury, he’d continued to spin a recent increase as a beneficence of his making, when in fact much of the increased funding has been mandatory because of inflation and growing enrollment.
Until the latest announcement, his teacher pay plan was an increase of 2 percent, spread over two years. Ducey has also disputed rankings that say Arizona is last in the nation for teacher pay, contending that we are no lower than 43rd — which, even if true, is still shameful.
While Ducey’s plan appears to meet educators’ demands of a 20 percent boost, there is much still to be determined. The biggest question, of course, is how to pay for these much-needed raises, and how to keep the funding source flush enough to make them permanent. Otherwise, raises now will become budget cuts later.
Ducey says that he thinks there is enough new tax revenue from state population growth and economic development to boost the average teacher salary in the state by 9 percent, to $52,725. Beginning teachers make far less than that, and staff positions can start near minimum wage. Under his plan there would be a 5 percent raise in the 2019-20 school year, and another 5 percent the year after that.
The obvious question is, if this money is suddenly available, why did it take protests and the threat of a strike for state lawmakers prioritize educators’ pay?
The obvious answer is, money can often be found when the political need is strong enough.
Educators and their supporters, including those in the private business sector, have worn themselves out explaining the long-term economic benefits of a strong public education system, in part because good schools are so important to companies looking for a place to expand, or relocate employees.
As every Arizona educator knows — and we include teachers, librarians, aides and staff in that pool — talk doesn’t pay the bills. Pay increases must include paraprofessionals and staff, because educating children is a shared endeavor.
We hope that Ducey’s plan holds water and that, if it is as advertised, it will be supported by lawmakers. Every Arizonan has something at stake in this, because the value of education reaches far beyond an individual teacher’s paycheck.
We, along with every educator, will be watching closely to make sure it’s not smoke and mirrors or a Legislative shell game of relabeling existing funds and claiming victory.
Every voter should be paying attention, too.