April 21, 2024 2:00 am

Local News

Lawmakers Seek To Resolve Teacher Shortage via Pay Raises and Health Insurance Benefits

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by Gloria Rebecca Gomez, Arizona Mirror

Lawmakers are hoping to convince teachers to stay in Arizona with a $10,000 pay raise, but the proposal comes with caveats that opponents say renders it purely performative. 

Schools in the Grand Canyon State are well into their seventh year of operating under a teacher shortage. As many as 2,890 positions are vacant and more than 1,800 teachers have called it quits since January. Rep. Matt Gress, who ran on a campaign promise to revitalize teacher pay, introduced House Bill 2800 to help retain those who still remain. 

It phases in a $10,000 raise by 2025 under a new “Pay Teachers First Fund.” Gress, who served as budget director for Gov. Doug Ducey, said it would make up for the unsuccessful 20% percent pay increase by 2020 plan that Ducey championed. The Phoenix Republican touted his bill as a legislative fix for school shortcomings. 

“We’re doing the job that most schools failed to do,” he told colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee on Feb. 20. 

A 2022 Auditor General report found that teacher salaries across the state have only increased by an average of 16.5% since 2017, with less than half of all districts meeting the 20% goal. The report notes that funding allocated to schools to achieve that goal was dependent on enrollment numbers and not on how much was needed to increase teacher salaries to that point, resulting in some districts receiving less than others. 

And because the money wasn’t explicitly directed towards teacher salaries, it could have been spent on other school needs. Teacher population dynamics may have also swayed the data: districts which saw both a decrease in teacher salary experienced a related decrease in teacher experience, indicating new hires who are often paid less. And some districts also allocated the money to pay raises for school support staff, not just teachers.

Democrats on the panel were skeptical of the bill’s actual impact on teachers. 

Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, a retired teacher, worried that eligibility provisions in the bill leave out critical support staff and may end up helping an unequal amount of teachers. Only those who spend 50% of their time in the classroom are eligible for pay increases, and schools with smaller class sizes would be funded at the rate they would have been if they had a teacher to student-to-teacher ratio of 15:1. 

Gress rebutted that his bill aims to help teachers, not support staff like bus drivers or aides, and the ratio was included to ensure that smaller schools don’t benefit from disproportionate funding compared to those with fewer teachers but more students. 

Former teacher and Tucson Democrat Nancy Gutierrez pointed out that the total funding allocation is likely to repeatedly push schools over the constitutional spending cap that has threatened to waylay them two years in a row. The bill allocates $1.1 billion towards raises, and this year schools faced massive layoffs and closures when a record $1.4 billion investment threatened to put them over the aggregate expenditure limit approved by voters in 1980. 

Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, who chairs the committee, reassured Gutierrez that the legislature has successfully overridden that cap and saved schools across the state from making debilitating budget cuts in the past. 

The cap has been waived in 2002, 2008, 2022 and this year, but this session saw resistance from a more conservative legislature, with members calling for increased transparency in exchange for letting schools spend the money already in their bank accounts. 

That demand was also baked into the language of Gress’ proposal. To qualify for the pay increases, schools would be required to participate in the state’s school finance transparency portal, which gathers information on revenue, enrollment and spending. The bill is also tied to the passage of a different proposal that expands the transparency portal to include staff demographics, salaries, funding comparisons to other schools in the district, the cost of planned projects and their funding sources. 

Republican lawmakers applauded that inclusion. Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, said it gives the legislature more input on where its funding approvals are being spent, something she said has been sorely lacking. 

“We write the blank checks,” she said. “We don’t often get any accountability or say where that money goes. (I tell people) it is your school boards and your school districts that determine if that money gets to the end of the row and gets to you.” 

While school boards do allocate where to spend revenue and funding, their decisions are subject to various federal and state expenditure reports. 

Rep. Michael Carbone, R-Yuma, said it works to resolve the discrepancy between teacher and administrative pay — a widely blamed gap conservative lawmakers have pointed to as an explanation for low teacher salaries, despite the fact that administrative spending is flat and has no correlation with teacher salaries in Arizona

Democrats disapproved of the calls for transparency, noting that schools are already highly accountable. They advocated, instead, for measures that truly address funding issues, such as a fix for the recurring battle with the school spending limit, which Republicans have shown no interest in. Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, dismissed the measure as nothing more than an attempt to garner positive media attention. 

“This is an exercise in futility and a bit of political theater,” she said. 

But Gress shot back that his measure is a step towards improving conditions for teachers. He added that holding schools accountable is imperative, and warned that no resolution for the school spending limit would occur without it. 

“This provides a pathway forward, and I can assure you I am never voting to permanently lift the AEL unless we have accountability included,” he said. 

The measure passed out of the committee 10-5, with one Democratic lawmaker, Phoenix  representative Amish Shah, voting to support the intent of the bill, though he said he had reservations about the bill’s lack of coverage for special education teachers, who often have shorter days than their colleagues and may end up being excluded from potential pay raises. 

Shah introduced his own measure to mitigate the teacher retention crisis. His proposal, House Bill 2737, targets the high health insurance premiums that often persuade young teachers to leave the profession for better fringe benefits elsewhere. 

“People leave the education system when they realize how expensive the coverage is for their dependent,” he said, on Feb. 20, during the same committee meeting. 

The problem, Shah said, is that teachers facing high premiums for their dependents can’t resort to insuring them under the state’s low income KidsCare option, because it bars coverage for those who qualify for insurance through a state agency employee. His bill would remedy that for teachers who make $75,000 or less and whose schools can prove that subsidizing their premiums would be a retention factor. 

Grants would cover 50% of the teacher’s annual insurance cost if costs under $6,000 or just 90% of the total — whichever is less. 

“They still have a little bit of skin in the game, but also we’re not handing out $5 to each person in an attempt to retain,” Shah explained. 

Marcus Osborn, a lobbyist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, spoke in favor of the bill. Osborn also served as a member of Madison Elementary’s school board, and shared that in his eight-year tenure, one of the top requests was dependent care. The bill’s subsidy program, which ends in 2028, would help establish data around that anecdote, which could inform future policy around teacher health insurance. 

While the proposal won resounding bipartisan support and passed out of the committee 12-3, Republican lawmakers on the panel made clear their votes weren’t an indication of future support. 

Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, said he was uncomfortable with approving subsidies for only teachers among all of the state employees the legislature oversees. Livingston, who co-sponsored the measure, said it was a step in the right direction, adding that he would be in favor of putting all of Arizona’s teachers on the same health insurance legislators are on to drive down costs for everyone.

This story was written by Gloria Gomez, a reporter at the Arizona Mirror, where this story first appeared.

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