Our Turn: Go bold with a 4 percent pay hike for Arizona teachers

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State Sen. Sylvia Allen, the chair of the Senate education committee, recently suggested on these pages, “If you have an idea that could advance education in our state, please let us know.”

Senator Allen, we’re glad you asked for input, and we know hundreds of parents, teachers and education advocates who would like to respond.

One of those advocates is Justin Wing, the director of HR at the largest elementary school district in the state. Justin has spent 21 years at Washington Elementary School District, and as the leader of teacher recruitment, has an up-close look at what’s driving the shortage.

Plain and simple, it’s teacher pay.

More than 2,000 classrooms have no teacher

Wing told us that a decade ago, hiring was competitive, and he had the opportunity to choose between 20 or more qualified applicants for every opening. Now, he’s lucky to find one, and that one applicant is being wooed by multiple districts.

We know what happened to precipitate this crisis. Our lawmakers made more than a billion dollars in cuts to public education during the recession that have not been restored.

Districts and charter schools were forced to make cuts of their own, reducing benefits and positions and increasing class sizes and teacher duties. This left thousands of classrooms without the most essential tool for student success: a teacher.

The vacancies are so severe that at the end of November, more than 2,000 classrooms were missing a teacher and another 2,000-plus classrooms were filled with individuals without standard teacher credentials.

That is why AZ Schools Now, a coalition composed of many of Arizona’s most dedicated and invested supporters of public education, has put forth a budget proposal that champions teacher pay raises.

How we’d pay for a 4-percent raise

Our coalition of parents, educators, faith-based leaders, business and child advocates proposes a budget with a 4-percent raise for teachers — 10 times the governor’s proposal.

The raise can be paid for by using the new education dollars identified in the governor’s budget along with previously appropriated but never spent monies for a new “achievement district.”

The plan also puts a freeze on corporate tax credits for private schools instead of allowing the credits to grow by 20 percent each year. And we advocate a pause in new tax cuts, so we can redirect that funding to teacher salaries as well.

After 27 years of tax cuts and many millions in tax credit giveaways for private schools, it’s time to step away from the failed status quo that has left our classrooms without enough teachers, books or technology. Instead, let’s make the choice to shift our priorities back to public schools, making educational success the top priority of our state’s budget.

Please, lawmakers, hold a hearing

Several weeks ago, hundreds of postcards were hand-delivered to legislative leadership with a request for public hearings on the education budget. Parents, teachers and community leaders want an opportunity to inform legislative discussion before the budget is passed.

Unfortunately, no response was given to our requests, and legislative leadership has not scheduled a single public hearing.

Therefore, AZ Schools Now will hold community budget hearings across the state at the end of this month to offer Arizonans a chance to weigh in on differing budget proposals.

We hope lawmakers such as Senator Allen will take this opportunity to attend the hearings and listen to their constituents. We know there are hundreds of individuals like Justin Wing who are asking to be heard. And we know many thousands of students who cannot afford for those voices to be silenced any longer.

Dick Foreman, the president and CEO of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition; Dr. Jennifer Johnson, the executive director of Support Our Schools Arizona; and the Rev. Martha Seaman, president of the Arizona Interfaith Network; are three of the founding members of the education coalition AZ Schools Now. More information on Facebook @SchoolsNowAZ. Share your thoughts at  info@azschoolsnow.org.

Editor’s note: Applications for funding are already open for schools seeking to expand under the “achievement district” plan, but the authors say they can persuade that the money be reallocated.

-Originally published by Dick Foreman, Jennifer Johnson and Martha Seaman, AZ Central on 3/22/17 at 4:32 pm