by Matthew Simon
West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona have all been mired in a teacher pay debate, but one question is rarely asked or answered: Who is really responsible for teacher pay?
In states across the country, the clamoring for increased pay has been well-coordinated, and the demands are costly. Teachers in West Virginia left their classroom posts for nine days, and teachers in Oklahoma rounded out their first week out of the classroom. Teachers in West Virginia returned to their classrooms after receiving a 5 percent pay increase and teachers in Oklahoma still walked out of their classrooms after receiving an average increase in pay of $6,100, demanding that it be $10,000. In Arizona, this has been dubbed the #RedforED movement. Teachers in one school district shut down nine schools in a coordinated “sickout,” and more are purportedly planned to come. Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association have outlined demands in order not to abandon their classrooms, which was agreed to under their contract. Among these demands include a 20 percent teacher pay raise, which could cost Arizona taxpayers approximately $680 million in the first year alone, not including the annual inflation adjustment. Their total funding demands, according to some estimates, reach into the $5 billion figure.
The debate over teacher pay reached new heights in Arizona when the Legislature passed a 2.12 percent teacher pay increase over two years on top of all of the other funding put into schools in 2017. This pay raise was outside the norm and is not how schools are funded in Arizona. It created cumbersome language to ensure that the dollars went to the intended recipient. Not only was this just bad policy because the state doesn’t fund teachers (it funds students), but also because it reinforced this idea that state lawmakers dictate what teachers’ salaries are.
What is far too often left out of the conversation are locally elected school district governing boards. These independently elected governing boards wield considerable power in their positions by creating policies, crafting school district budgets and setting teacher pay. Collectively, these school district governing boards allocated over $8.7 billion during the 2017 school year. Because of this local management of dollars, the Classroom Spending Report produced by the Auditor General becomes increasingly informative. The Auditor General puts school districts into operational efficiency peer groups by the size, type, and geographic location of school districts.
According to the 2017 report, Tempe Elementary School District (TESD) and Alhambra Elementary School District (AESD) were in the same operational peer group. Both served a similar number of students, and they are elementary districts in urban areas. However, when you look at teacher pay and revenues generated per student, it becomes clear how local decisions can have a huge impact on teacher pay. TESD received, on average, 25 percent more per pupil than AESD but paid its teachers almost 30 percent less, on average.
This isn’t the only example. Paradise Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) has been the subject of much media attention. In fact, one of the teachers within the school district posted her pay stub on social media. Her annual salary: $35,490. How could a teacher with nearly 10 years of experience and a school district that receives $10,501 per pupil be paid so little? It becomes even harder to comprehend when compared to Gilbert Unified School District (GUSD). Again, the Auditor General put these two school districts in the same operational peer group. GUSD received 16.9 percent less per pupil than PVUSD, but it was able to pay its teachers 5.5 percent more.
And just to make the point abundantly clear, Balsz Elementary School District (Balsz) and Tolleson Elementary School District (Tolleson) show a similar trend. Tolleson receives 24.5 percent less than Balsz per pupil, but it is able to pay its teachers, on average, 13 percent more.
If Arizona teachers and the public have a gripe with elected officials, the elected officials they should be targeting with this anger need to be their locally elected school district governing boards. The comparisons make it clear: It’s about how those dollars are spent. When a school district governing board prioritizes teacher pay, teacher pay is higher. If the Legislature were to meet the multi-billion dollar demands of #RedforED, there is no guarantee that those dollars would get where they were intended to go. Instead, these teachers and the public should be attending their local school district governing board meetings, examining their budgets, and holding them accountable.
Matthew Simon is the director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute.