Ducey, GOP lawmakers react to Arizona teachers' demand for 20 percent raises
Corrections & Clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect that a 20 percent raise would boost the median salary for Arizona elementary teachers to about $50,969. A previous version gave an incorrect percentage.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has a response to the state's teachers, who on Wednesday demanded 20 percent raises: Look at what the state has already done for education funding.
That was the thrust of Ducey's statement in response to thousands of educators and their supporters who protested outside the Capitol to demand the state do more to address a teacher crisis.
"More needs to done, but our state has made progress," Ducey's spokesman, Patrick Ptak, said in an email. "His goal (is) to pass a budget in the next few weeks that continues to increase our investment in public education, but we won't stop there."
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The governor did not address the demand for the 20 percent raise.
But Ptak said teachers saw their salaries increase by an average of 4.3 percent from 2016 to 2017, citing figures from the state auditor general.
Republican leaders in the Legislature also sidestepped the teachers' demands for a 20 percent raise.
Lindsay Breon, a physical-education teacher at Washington Elementary School in Phoenix, shares her feelings at the #RedForEd rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. David Wallace/azcentral.com
GOP leaders don't address demand for raise
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, also responded with a press statement.
Similar to Ducey, he noted Arizona's current investments in education, saying the state added more than $300 million in "new spending" for K-12 education last year and included "the first phase of a $1,000 raise for most public school teachers."
“Arizona teachers deserve more than they currently make," Mesnard said. "As the state continues to recover from the Great Recession, we’ll have more money to devote to K-12 education."
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Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said he couldn't comment on the teachers' demands Wednesday night because he had not reviewed their proposal.
In regard to the demand for 20 percent raises, Yarbrough responded, "I'll be curious to see what that would cost."
The Day of Action for Education took place at the State Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. Hundreds of teachers, their family members and supporters gathered to encourage lawmakers to increase teacher salaries. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Democrats critical of response
The governor's comments drew swift criticism from Democrats and teachers at the protest and on social media. They emphasized that the state still ranks at or near the bottom for teacher pay nationally.
Senate Minority Whip Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said Ducey and Republicans in the Legislature have tried to condition Arizonans into thinking small spending hikes for education are acceptable.
"This is a guy who just doesn't get it," Quezada posted on Twitter Wednesday night. "How long are going to accept this type of completely #ToneDeaf leadership from the governor's office?"
Thousands of #RedForEd Arizona teachers rally for more education funding at the state Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. Thomas Hawthorne/azcentral.com
What teachers make now
The median salary for Arizona elementary teachers is $42,474, according to Expect More Arizona, a bipartisan education-advocacy group. A 20 percent raise would increase it to about $50,969, still below the national median of $55,800 and below pay medians for neighboring state such as New Mexico ($59,047) and Utah ($54,814).
Exactly how much a 20 percent teacher raise could cost the state is unclear. State officials have estimated a 1 percent pay hike for teachers costs about $34 million, meaning a 20 percent raise could cost the state about $680 million.
"They sound like big numbers. But in reality, this is what it would take for us to get back to even being normal (in comparison to) the rest of the nation," Quezada told The Arizona Republic. "It's important for us to have that kind of a perspective of what normalcy really should be in Arizona."
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But Ptak said Ducey agrees that teachers should be rewarded for their work: "We will continue each year to put more resources into K-12 education to better serve our teachers and students.
"They do extraordinary work each day, and they should be valued and rewarded for their hard work."
Ducey and the Legislature, currently in budget discussions, are weighing a $400 million education-funding proposal by the governor that includes the second half of a promised 2 percent teacher-pay increase.
A #RedForEd speaker addresses teachers who were rallying at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on March 28, 2018. azcentral.com
What the teachers want
Arizona Educators United, the grassroots group that started the #RedForEd movement, has demanded the 20 percent raise along with funding hikes in several others areas.
They also demanded that lawmakers stop giving tax cuts until the state's per-pupil funding reaches the national average. According to the most recent comparison, Arizona spent $7,489 per pupil in 2015 compared with the national average of $11,392.
Ducey, who ran for office on a pledge to cut taxes every year, didn't address that demand on Wednesday night.
Meeting the teachers' demands for 20 percent raises would likely require a tax increase. That's a non-starter with many Republican legislators, who vehemently oppose all tax hikes.
Mesnard, in his statement, also emphasized that the Legislature recently passed a 20-year extension of Proposition 301, Arizona's existing 0.6-cent sales tax for education, which currently brings about $667 million annually.
Ducey signed that legislation this week.
However, the law does not raise tax rates, nor does it give schools any more money than what they are currently receiving, though it shuffled around some of the money to go toward teachers and classroom spending.
Arizona Educators United has also demanded the state restore education funding to 2008 levels. Arizona spends $924 less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars today than it did in 2008.
Restoring education funding to that level would cost the state about $1 billion.
State Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, protested alongside teachers at the Capitol. He said he wishes the Legislature had "the political will" to give teachers a sizable raise, but it will likely take heavy external pressure.
"We don't respect teachers," Hernandez said. "We don't show them that we actually treat them like professionals because we're paying them so much less than other places. And I hope that they will force us into acting."
Republic reporter Ricardo Cano contributed to this article.
Arizona State Democratic Rep. Daniel Hernandez Jr. talks about teacher pay and the issues they face. Nick Oza/azcentral.com