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Seeing Red

Educators and their supporters listen to speakers earlier this month during a Red For Ed rally on the lawn at Flagstaff City Hall calling for higher teacher salaries and increased funding for education.

Arizona teachers made it clear last week they won’t be taking “no” for an answer any longer.

Are Arizona voters ready to follow?

The “no” came from Gov. Doug Ducey, as in “no” 20 percent pay raise and “no” new taxes – period.

So teachers said they’d take up the matter themselves. That could mean a walkout, West Virginia-style. Or it might mean a statewide initiative to double the recently extended 0.6 percent sales tax for education. That would raise just enough – about $680 million – to cover the cost of a 20 percent raise.

But it would still leave the average Arizona teacher earning less than their counterparts in New Mexico and Utah, not to mention less than the national median teacher pay. Put up a whole extra penny, as Arizona did for three years during the recession, and the extra billion dollars would actually get state teacher pay to the national median.

GOOD TEACHERS LEAVING

As we’ve said before, money won’t solve everything that ails public education in Arizona. But when the underfunding is so severe that it costs a community their Teacher of the Year because he can get an immediate 40 percent raise in Washington or Oregon, something has to give. A pay raise is almost a token gesture, considering how much more there is left to do – cutting class sizes, boosting kindergarten readiness, raising reading and math proficiency, getting more kids to go to college. One estimate puts extra overall state spending for public schools just to get to the national per-pupil spending median at six times what a 20 percent pay raise would cost.

Or put another way, $680 million sounds really big until it is compared to the $5.4 billion the state already spends each year on public schools. And with a population growth rate among the fastest in the nation, Arizona can’t afford not to think big.

We can’t help but think Arizona teachers and #RedforEd are taking some of their inspiration from their own students and #NeverAgain, the campaign against gun violence. Or maybe it is the example of Save Our Schools, another grassroots group that gathered enough signatures to suspend the flow of state tax dollars to private schools until voters can weigh in this November.

ELECTED REPS UNRESPONSIVE

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In both cases, we would have preferred going through our elected representatives. But Congress and most legislatures have shown no backbone in standing up to the NRA for sensible gun controls. And in Phoenix, the trickle-down tax cuts and privatized school choice mantras combine to drain public education of even basic resources. Whether because of cowardice or misguided ideology , there is little choice other than an end run around representative government.

And Ducey has made it clear he is sticking with “No new taxes” regardless of how dire teacher vacancies and resignations become. He did support and sign an extension of the current 0.6 percent sales tax for education passed by voters back in 2000. But an additional penny tax sunsetted after three years thanks to his opposition and dark money PACs. Then he settled a lawsuit over inflation payments for 70 cents on the dollar by tapping the state land trust fund principal for 10 years – a tactic a federal judge has ruled unconstitutional.

And half of that money is just going to keep up with enrollment growth requiring more teachers – when they can be found. Vacancies in poorer, rural districts are soaring, resulting in thousands of long-term substitutes and uncertified teachers in the classroom. When adjusted for inflation, Arizona is spending $925 less per student than before the Great Recession.

Meanwhile the governor continues to push corporate tax cuts and credits while stonewalling any attempts at structural tax reform that would tap the state’s service economy. He pushes tax credits going to private schools that now siphon $150 million a year from the treasury, plus expanded private school vouchers for at least 30,000 students – more if the Legislature votes later for expansion. As noted above, voters will have a say on the latter in November.

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WHO WILL LEAD ON PAY RAISE?

Before that, teachers may be striking over pay that continues to lag near the bottom of the 50 states --the exact rank depends on which inflation and cost of living indices are consulted. In high-cost, low-pay cities like Flagstaff, the squeeze is particularly acute, as Jeff Taylor, county Teacher of the Year in 2014, pointed out in his resignation letter. He is leaving not just Flagstaff but the entire state for the Pacific Northwest, where he is anticipating an instant 40 percent pay hike.

Where does all this leave LAUNCH Flagstaff? The coalition of civic, business and education groups kicked off the year with a community forum on school finance that was a cri de coeur: Local educators are struggling financially to serve a community with a 24 percent poverty rate while dealing with rural teaching vacancies, rising class sizes, lagging test scores and persistently high dropout rates. Only 22 percent of low-income adults here have some college or a bachelor’s degree.

Next, LAUNCH issued a baseline improvement plan that focused on pre-school, reading and math proficiency, high school graduation and post-secondary training. It was left to teachers and others to rally around the statewide #RedforEd movement, with talk of a work stoppage and other pressure tactics similar to the ones that won West Virginia teachers an immediate 5 percent raise. Flagstaff teachers are no doubt all for improving educational outcomes – but as Wednesday’s rally at City Hall showed, they aren’t willing to do so any longer for near-poverty wages.

So while 20 percent seems like a daunting figure, there are many states doing much better, and without breaking the bank. In fact, states spending the most on public education, like Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Washington and California, have some of the nation’s most dynamic economies.

We don’t think it is a coincidence. Good teachers are going to go where they are most valued by a political and business culture willing to make the investment. Arizona Republicans have tried to do it on the cheap and are finally being called out. Teachers, for one, aren’t going to take it anymore, and we have a feeling parents and others will be right behind them in November.

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