Top teachers call for 4 percent pay boost rather than 0.4 percent

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Michelle Doherty, the 2017 Teacher of the Year, explains to staffers of Gov. Doug Ducey Monday why the 0.4 percent pay hike he has proposed for the coming year won't do anything to get people to go into teaching and keep them in the classroom. With her is Christine Marsh, the 2016 honoree. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Michelle Doherty, the 2017 Teacher of the Year, explains to staffers of Gov. Doug Ducey Monday why the 0.4 percent pay hike he has proposed for the coming year won’t do anything to get people to go into teaching and keep them in the classroom. With her is Christine Marsh, the 2016 honoree. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Calling the governor’s salary hike proposal perhaps worse than nothing, the top teachers in Arizona want Gov. Doug Ducey to spend all of his new education dollars for a pay hike rather than spreading the cash around.

But the governor is giving the idea a chilly reception.

In a letter delivered to the governor’s office Monday on behalf of AZ Schools Now, a coalition of education interests, Michelle Doherty, the 2017 Arizoana Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year, and Christine Marsh, her 2016 counterpart, said teachers statewide could be given a 4 percent across-the-board pay hike this coming school year. By contrast, Ducey is offering just a 0.4 percent hike — less than $200 a year — though he promises similar increases until that reaches 2 percent by 2020.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Marsh said Monday after delivering the letter to Ducey staffers.

“But that’s not going to solve any issues at all,” she explained. “It’s not going to keep teachers from leaving the profession or leaving the state.”

In fact, Marsh said, the “couple of dollars a day” in Ducey’s proposal may be worse than had he not said anything about teacher salaries at all.

“Quite frankly, I’m afraid (it) is going to have the opposite effect and drive teachers out,” she explained. “If they think to themselves, ‘This is what the governor means when he’s going to help education,’ I’m out.”

The governor’s budget does identify $114 million in new education dollars. But just $13.6 million of that is earmarked for salaries.

Other allocations go to full-day kindergarten in the poorest areas of the state, signing bonuses for new teachers who agree to work in areas of high poverty, loan forgiveness for those who agree to teach math, science and special education, and bonuses for schools whose students, on average, score in the top 10 percent statewide in the AzMERIT test.

About the only thing the plan would not disturb is the $17 million the governor has set aside for school construction and repairs.

That would total $94 million.

Marsh said the other things Ducey wants to fund also are important.

“But if we don’t have qualified teachers in the classroom, then these other issues kind of don’t matter,” she said.

The teachers also say there’s easily another $12.4 million available. That’s the increased amount that corporations will be able to divert next school year from what they owe the state in income taxes to instead going to scholarships to help students attend private and parochial schools.

Companies already are claiming close to $62 million in such credits. That $12.4 million reflects current law increasing that figure automatically next year — and every year — by another 20 percent.

So, if left undisturbed, that would increase to nearly $87 million the following year, $104 million the year after that and so on.

The proposal would cap the annual increase at no more than inflation, or only about $1 million.

Ducey told Capitol Media Services he’s “always open-minded and willing to listen to our great, dedicated teachers.” And he acknowledged the shortage of teachers and the role that money plays.

But the governor defended earmarking some of the available cash needs to go to other programs.

“I also am concerned about our kids, especially our kids in low-income areas,” he said. “We’re trying to address both these issues in a thoughtful, positive way.”

And Ducey suggested that the education community should be standing behind his plan, saying things could be worse — and may be if the legislature pares back his proposal.

“I also hear a lot of discussion about people who think maybe we don’t have the money or we’re spending too much,” the governor said. “I want our teachers to wake up every day trying to move this budget forward.”

Ducey also said that the question of higher teacher pay is not totally dependent on what’s in his budget.

He pointed out that voter approval last year of Proposition 123 will mean an additional $318 million in public schools this year, about $280 a student.

“I also want to challenge our superintendents across the state,” the governor said. “They are more than welcome to take those dollars and put those into teachers’ raises.”

What Ducey did not say, however, is the ballot measure does not exactly represent an increase in baseline funding but simply settled the lawsuit filed in 2010 by schools when lawmakers ignored a voter-approved mandate to increase basic state aid to schools every year at least as much as inflation. And the amount of the settlement — about $3.5 billion over the next decade — represents only a portion of how much schools said they were owed.

“Many teachers already have received a raise,” the governor said.

“I think that’s terrific,” he continued. And Ducey said those that have not will at least be in line for the five-step raise.

The governor specifically said he is not particularly interested in scaling back the increase in the amount of money corporations can give for private and parochial school scholarships instead of putting the money into the state general fund.

“Parental choice is important in a state like ours,” Ducey said.

The governor said there’s “a lot of good news” in his $9.78 billion budget proposal for public education.

“At the same time, having an environment in education where there are options for our parents where they can send their child to the school of their choice is important,” he continued.

“It’s something we have in Arizona,” Ducey said. “It’s something many other states don’t have and want and I want to see that continue.”

-Originally published by Howard Fischer, AZ Capitol Times, 1/23/17 at 6:12 pm