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Republican lawmakers pitch plan to raise teacher pay in Arizona

By Wayne Schutsky
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - 10:05am
Updated: Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - 8:29pm

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Warren Petersen at podium
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen on Nov. 13, 2023.

The Republican lawmakers will ask voters to renew Proposition 123, a 2016 ballot measure that increased the amount of money schools received from the state’s land trust fund to cover education-related expenses. 

Like the previous proposition, this one would ask voters to increase the annual draw public schools receive from 2.5% of what is in the trust annually to 6.9%.

But this time, Senate President Warren Petersen said the proposal would require that all of the funds — an estimated $300 million — go toward teacher pay. If approved by voters in 2024, Republicans estimate this new measure would raise teacher salaries by about 7%, or about $4,000, in 2025.

That would raise the average teacher salary in Arizona to over $60,000 per year, higher than the current national average, according to the proponents of the plan.

According to the National Education Association, the average public school teacher salary in the 2021-22 school year was $66,745 in the U.S. In Arizona, the average teacher salary was $56,775 — lower than Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. 

Citing that low pay, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said the state loses about 40% of its teachers within their first four years of teaching.

The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association reported in September that nearly 30% of teacher vacancies across the state are unfilled

"We lose good teachers to surrounding states that can afford to pay more,'' Horne said. "We can't afford to do that.''

But Petersen acknowledged that the pay bump alone — which won’t reach teachers’ bank accounts for two years even if voters approve the measure — may not be enough to stem Arizona’s ongoing teacher shortage. 

He said that communities — and students themselves — also play a role.

“The public needs to do more,” Petersen said. “We also need students to do better. I hear it’s not just teacher pay, but I hear the way that classrooms and the way that students are — we need our students to be respectful, and we need families to make sure we support our teachers.”

The legislators backing the bill said the specifics of the question that will go before voters have not been worked out yet. But Petersen said they will likely ask voters to approve an 8 to 10 year extension.

The existing measure, approved in 2016, permitted the state to take an extra $3.5 billion from the trust over 10 years. Those dollars were earmarked to end a lawsuit filed against the state for ignoring a voter mandate to boost aid to education annually to account for education.

Matt Gress at podium
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Arizona state Rep. Matt Gress (center).

Rep. Matt Gress (R-Phoenix) who was former Gov. Doug Ducey's chief financial officer at the time, said that the money still being taken out of the trust will no longer be needed after it expires on June 30, 2025.

What the new proposal would do is pick up where Prop. 123 leaves off, continuing the same extra withdrawals from the trust, but this time with the dollars solely for teacher salaries.

There is some question about what would happen if the trust underperforms and does not provide the funds necessary to provide the promised raises to teachers. Petersen said if the fund underperforms, then a smaller amount of money would go into the fund for teacher pay.

But both Gress and Sen. Ken Bennett (R-Prescott) who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the state wouldn’t back out of its commitment to teachers if the fund underperforms. 

“It would be backfilled by the general fund … any circuit breaker cannot break the promise we made to our teachers,” Gress said. 

And Petersen said those concerns are much ado about nothing, arguing opponents — including current Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jeff DeWit — expressed the same concerns the first time Prop. 123 went before voters. 

"Not only was it unfounded, not only were they wrong, but the fund nearly doubled,'' Petersen said. "We also project that the fund will continue to grow.''

The Legislature can refer the issue to the ballot without input from Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who can veto bills but cannot stop issues referred to the ballot by legislators from going before voters. If the proposal’s supporters can muster the votes at the legislature, it will appear on ballots in November 2024.

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