Better funded schools would show real appreciation for Arizona teachers

#redfored teacher pay
#RedForEd marchers as they moved toward the Capitol in April 2018 as part of a protest over low teacher pay. Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy | Cronkite News

Teacher Appreciation Week is going to be different this year, as schools are closed and daily life is hugely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. But it is exactly because of times like this that we should show our public schools and our teachers how much they mean to all of us.

While many parents have been pressed into something loosely akin to homeschooling while also trying to juggle the loss of jobs, working from home, going to work at risk to their health or any other number of changes to our lives, public schools and our amazingly-adaptable professional educators have stepped up in huge ways.

Public district schools have worked hard to get meal programs up and running so every school-aged kid can have access to meals through the crisis. One Arizona school district sent out its school buses to act as mobile WiFi hotspots to help their poorer students get access to the internet. Other schools have worked to find other solutions to technological limitations and hurdles faced by students due to poverty, remote living, parental schedules, and many other challenges. 

Public schools have stepped up to partner with parents across the state to help continue student learning in the face of this historic interruption. They haven’t given up on what is essentially the impossible: traversing for Arizona students and families a digital divide that insiders have known about for a decade and state leaders have utterly ignored and worsened by their chronic refusal to invest in public education, especially in poor and rural parts of the state. 

If there ever was a time to show our teachers some appreciation, it’s now.

Unfortunately, Arizona teachers are unlikely to get anything more than lip service from our state government. Even the recent budget passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on March 28 does little to improve our public schools or restore the billions of dollars in cuts our schools have had to cope with for over a decade now.

The current budget completes the last round of teacher raises that were promised as part of Ducey’s “20×2020” plan, but teacher pay is still lower than it was a decade ago when adjusted for inflation. We’ve been paying teachers less as we’ve asked them to manage larger classrooms and given their districts less money for the technology infrastructure they could really use right now. 

The legislature also had the opportunity to fully restore what’s known as “District Additional Assistance” funding – money that was cut following the Great Recession of 2008 – which pays for things like textbooks and technology as well as furniture and equipment, but they instead opted to only add $64.4 million.

Yet they found money to pay for a contentious results-based funding program though, offering $68.8 million to schools who have an advantage on standardized tests. Everyone in the education community understands that test-based funding does more to reward wealthy neighborhoods than quality teaching and learning, and expanding programs like this means we aren’t rewarding effective schools – we’re rewarding schools for not having a lot of poor kids.

Some of you may read this and think, “How silly! The state has lost billions in revenue due to COVID-19, it’s not just schools! Now is not the time to gripe about education funding!” I totally agree! The time was in 2010 when the state was well into economic recovery from the Great Recession. The time was in 2015 when the state started pouring millions more dollars into unaccountable private school voucher expansions. The time was in 2018 when record-revenues were pouring in and state leaders chose tax cuts for the comfortable over investments for the struggling. 

While every increase is an improvement, especially when billions have been diverted to everything from tax cuts and tax credits to private school voucher programs and results-based funding, the meager funds approved in this year’s budget do little to reflect how much value our public schools and teachers provide to our communities. This year’s budget ensures we’ll be talking about dead-last salaries, rock-bottom student investment and deleterious teacher retention problems.

Fortunately, the legislature has until July 1 to add funding to the budget. Let’s actually show our teachers they mean more to us than the bare minimum. Let’s actually appreciate our teachers this year.