Arizona Approves Budget to End Teacher Strike

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By Brenna Goth

Arizona schools expect teachers to return to the classroom following a five-day walkout, after Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed a budget early May 3 that includes a 9 percent pay raise next school year.

Organizers said this week they would end the strike that has impacted hundreds of schools and hundreds of thousands of children if the Legislature passed a plan that includes salary increases and more classroom funding. Some schools remain closed a sixth day after lawmakers worked through the night to approve the budget.

Educators walked out April 26 in protest of salaries that are low compared with those in neighboring states as well as what they see as insufficient classroom funding. The approved $10.4 billion budget addresses some of their concerns, namely by providing a path to 20 percent cumulative raises by the 2020 school year.

But the Legislature left most demands unmet, including pay bumps for staff and no new tax cuts. Organizers including the Arizona Education Association union urged approval of the budget but also had major problems with it.

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said in a statement that teachers made as much progress as possible this legislative session but must keep fighting. Teacher reaction has also been mixed, with many hoping to influence November elections.

“We were not able to change the minds of lawmakers, so the next step will be to change the faces of our lawmakers,” Thomas said.

Teacher Raises, School Funding Increases

The final budget goes well beyond the 1 percent teacher raise Ducey proposed earlier this year. He maintained there was no money for more, until the #RedForEd movement united educators clad in red at large demonstrations over the past several weeks.

Thousands of teachers flooded the state Capitol and budget hearings in recent days after the walkout began. Many used vacation or sick leave with the blessing of their school districts, according to Erin Hart, chief operating officer for education nonprofit Expect More Arizona.

Now, school districts will receive about $273 million statewide that’s intended to give teachers a 9 percent raise this year, on top of a 1 percent raise from last year. Districts will have some flexibility in how to award that, though organizers criticize that some positions and support staff will be excluded.

The plan also outlines funding for future years that would raise salaries a total of 20 percent on average, including last year’s raise. The budget includes money to restore school funding cut during the Great Recession.

The budget largely mirrors what Ducey proposed days before the walkout, though it preserves some programs he previously suggested cutting to pay for it.

“We will never check the box on public education, but this is one big, positive step in the right direction for our teachers and their students,” Ducey said in a statement.

Is Funding Sustainable?

Teachers and legislative Democrats criticized the plan and questioned how Arizona will pay for it. The budget relies primarily on economic outlooks predicting Arizona will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue annually in the coming years.

The plan also includes funding from tax fraud prevention efforts, shifts in property taxes, and projected state health-care savings. Ducey also signed a separate law to impose a new highway safety fee on vehicle registrations, which will boost state revenues.

Critics fear the Legislature and governor can backtrack on their promises in future years. House Democrats voted unanimously against the budget.

Republicans and Ducey “wrote a check this morning that we very likely can’t cover beyond one year,” Rep. Randy Friese (D) said in a statement.

The governor’s proposal isn’t sustainable over time without new revenue, Rep. Rebecca Rios, the top Democrat in the Arizona House, told Bloomberg Law. Its passage won’t prevent Democrats and teachers from continuing to press the governor for new revenue for teacher salaries, she said.

A new coalition is seeking its own solution through a ballot measure proposal filed April 27. The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for the wealthy to fund teacher and employee salaries as well as school operations.

Supporters are collecting signatures to place the measure on the 2018 ballot. Groups like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry have already voiced opposition, saying the state’s overall economy would take a hit.

—With assistance from Louis C. LaBrecque

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