Corrected: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect affiliation for Nicholas Johnson. He is the senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The statewide teacher walkout in Arizona kicking off today underscores the political, logistical, and budget hurdles states face in boosting teacher salaries even when the national economy is resurging and there’s widespread agreement that teachers are underpaid.
Pay issues have fueled teacher protests, walkouts, and strikes in Colorado, Mississippi, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Why, educators ask, have teacher salaries failed to budge eight years after the Great Recession and with unemployment at historic lows around the nation?
The answer, school finance experts say, includes factors such as voters’ aversion to taxes, competing pressures on state budgets, and the sheer complexity of crafting a pay raise for what amounts to the largest single workforce in many states.
In Arizona, for example, there is a fundamental disagreement between teachers, the state’s political leaders, and the state’s Democrats over how schools should be funded, whether the state’s tax code leaves too many off the hook, and how soon change should come.
Teachers there, who on average make less than $47,405 a year, have demanded, as part of a $1 billion package, a 20 percent pay raise by this fall, which they say the state can easily afford.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has said while it’s true the economy in Arizona is doing well, the state can’t afford that much of a pay raise that soon. After initially scoffing at teachers’ demands, he changed course after they ramped up their threats to strike.
He’s now proposing to make good on that 20 percent pay raise by 2020.
“Our teachers deserve a raise,” Ducey tweeted last week. “It’s time to get this done.”
That’s not good enough for the thousands of teachers in Arizona who voted earlier this month to walk out of school.
“This governor has invested a significant amount of money compared to the size of the pie that’s available, but the issue is that the pie is not growing as fast as the demand for the pieces of that pie,” said Christine Thompson, the president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, a nonpartisan advocacy group that pushes for improved academic outcomes.
Nationally, teachers today are paid on average $60,483 annually—17 percent lower than America’s typical college graduates, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Education Association.
And teachers have lost ground in recent years, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on lower- and middle-income workers. Its analysis found that while college graduates’ average weekly pay rose by $124 between 1996 and 2015, teachers’ pay declined by $30 over that time when adjusted for inflation.
That’s despite the fact that Americans are making and spending at the highest level since the end of the Great Recession in 2010. The reality, experts point out, is that a lot of that money doesn’t land in states’ and districts’ coffers.
Since the recession and the ending of emergency federal fiscal aid, both of which devastated states’ budgets, state politicians have slashed away at taxes in order to spur their economies. But as states seek to meet soaring pension and health-care costs, schools are ultimately left with less money to go around.
More than half the nation’s states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2015 school year than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that focuses on reducing inequality.
The prospect of boosting teacher pay by just 1 percent—what can amount to millions of dollars in recurring costs—is out of the picture for many school districts.
“Teacher pay is often at times in tension with other things in schools such as classroom supplies, support staff, counselors, and keeping class sizes low as enrollment continues to climb,” said Nicholas Johnson, the senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “There’s just a lot of tradeoffs you have to consider.”
Arizona is one of seven states that, in response to voter demands, has cut income taxes in the last decade, a revenue source schools rely on heavily.
In 2016 alone, the state allowed $13.7 billion to go uncollected through a series of income, sales, and other tax exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions, or credits, according to the state’s department of revenue.
At the same time, Arizona has made among the most dramatic budget cuts in the nation to its schools, totaling 14 percent in the last decade alone. Across the state, schoolhouses are crumbling, classroom sizes have bulged, and a handful of the state’s most isolated districts have gone to just four-day school weeks, according to teachers, advocates, and politicians.
The paradox is that Arizona’s economy is in its best condition in years. Its unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent, and the state’s 100 largest corporations added more than 20,000 jobs last year alone.
The governor, who is up for re-election this fall, says that now that the economy is on an upswing, he will use projected increased revenue to pay for a 9 percent increase in teacher pay this year and 5 percent in subsequent years until teachers in 2020 are paid on average $58,100. The proposal would still need to get through the legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.
“Our commitment in this budget proposal is to our teachers,” he said during a press conference earlier this month. “Our economy has been growing, we have surplus revenues, and we’re going to put these toward teacher pay. We’ll have to make other adjustments.”
Teachers in Arizona have expressed deep skepticism about Ducey’s projections. They worry that the nation is overdue for another recession, and argue that the pay increase doesn’t come soon enough.
Searching for Revenue
State Sen. Steve Farley, a candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary this fall, has proposed closing several tax loopholes that he says have left the state in fiscal shambles.
“There’s an emerging consensus here that we need to invest a significant amount of funding into the public education system,” Farley said. “This governor and this legislature have chosen repeatedly to provide corporate loopholes that have done nothing to help us.”
His opponent in the primary, David Garcia, a college education professor, says that in addition to getting rid of some corporate tax cuts, the state must find a new revenue source. He has proposed the state levy a new income tax on its wealthiest 1 percent.
“We’ve got to be honest with Arizonans,” he said. “We’re not going to solve this issue unless we raise new revenue. We can’t shuffle the deck and get out of this.”
State Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican who is the chairman of the house appropriations committee, describes the state’s economy as having been hit hard by the recession and slow to recover. He also in recent days has expressed skepticism of Ducey’s proposal.
“We don’t have the money,” he said when asked about the teachers’ demand for a 20 percent pay increase. In reference to Democratic proposals to find the money in the state’s budget and increase taxes, Kavanagh said, “They’re calling for increases in education spending, but they have no plan to get there, Every year, they roll out the same, tired, fallacious rhetoric about billion-dollar tax loopholes.”
Even as the states’ teachers prepared to strike, legislators were offering various revenue proposals, including moving money from other state departments, tapping into the state’s savings account, and levying a temporary sales tax.
The governor and leaders of the teachers’ group have attacked each others’ plans on television and in YouTube ads. The president of the Arizona Cardinals, mayors, and even the director of the state’s health department have weighed in to support Ducey’s plan, while the state’s Democrats, hundreds of parents and even some Republican politicians have expressed support for the teachers.
“This is a complex set of issues, and we all need to sit down and talk about what teachers want ... and what is the best return for the state of Arizona,” said Thompson, of Expect More Arizona. “I’m concerned about the politics and what the end game is and the expectations about how quickly these things get done.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2018 edition of Education Week as Why Raising Teacher Pay Is So Difficult