by Matthew Simon

On Thursday, April 26, 2018, over 800,000 students and their families were shut of their schools as school districts ceased operations because of an illegal employee strike. And early this morning, the Arizona legislature passed a budget including a teacher pay raise plan. Problem solved? Not quite. Schools are still shut, kids are still suffering, and parents are still asking questions.

Last week, the Goldwater Institute sent a letter to school districts informing them of their constitutional duty to provide an education to Arizona students. Since then, the Goldwater Institute has heard from numerous parents and teachers about the impact this is having on their lives.

In many of these conversations with parents and teachers, there has been continued confusion about who is ultimately responsible for getting these teachers back to work and the schools reopened. This past month, I wrote about the impact local decisions have on school district budgets and teacher pay. It pointed out how school districts with a similar number of students and grades served can have drastically different budgets and how they prioritize teacher pay.

One of the examples that got the most attention was the example between Tempe Elementary School District (TESD) and Alhambra Elementary School District (AESD). Although TESD received 25% more per pupil than AESD, they paid their teachers on average 30% less. In recent news coverage, a TESD governing board member explained how his school district has prioritized lower class sizes and that with more resources, they could do more for their teachers. What’s fascinating about this explanation is that TESD operates seven more schools than AESD and serves nearly 1,500 fewer students. This isn’t about class size. This is about poor stewardship of resources and managing effective operations of school facilities. There is a major difference between operating more schools than necessary and class size reduction.

Not only did the governing board member from TESD reinforce that these are local school district budgeting decisions, but so did the Arizona Education Association in a recent letter to the Arizona Attorney General. The Arizona Education Association reinforces a point from the Goldwater Institute by saying “the governing boards of the State’s school districts are responsible for employing teachers and setting their salaries and benefits for each year.” The Arizona Education Association has made this point crystal clear: Arizona school districts set teacher pay, not the state of Arizona.

So, what now? The Arizona Legislature has adopted a budget that would add over $500 million in new spending to K-12 education, which includes new school construction, building renewal, inflation funding, teacher salary increases, additional assistance funding, career and technical education, early literacy and gifted education funding. To understand the significance of this investment, if you took the inflation funding and the new base money for teacher pay (approximately $378 million) and divided that by the approximately 60,000 teachers in this state, each teacher this session alone could receive about a $6,305 ongoing raise. This doesn’t even account for the $100 million in additional assistance that was also appropriated by the legislature. This money can be used for additional support staff increases, technology, and maintenance. Further, this budget advance appropriated hundreds of millions of new dollars over the next three and five years.

As is the case with any budget for families around this country, there are always going to be choices that have to be made. The Legislature could inject $1 billion into the system, and these choices would still exist for school districts: smaller class sizes, new technology, higher salaries, new programs. No amount of money will ever be able to make the process of making these choices disappear. School districts across Arizona will be crafting budgets that will have an impact on every school employee, parent, and student. Parents, the public, and the #RedforEd movement need to direct their attention to their school district governing boards. As the Arizona Education Association said, “Districts are responsible for employing teachers and setting their salaries and benefits for each year.

Matthew Simon is Director of Education Policy for the Goldwater Institute.