Tuesday, April 24, 2018

why Arizona teachers are walking out

For a number of years, teachers in Arizona have been among the poorest paid in the country.  According to the most recent available data (see below) teachers in Arizona are paid, on average, $15,000 a year less than the national average for comparable positions. I have met numerous teachers with at least 10 years experience and a masters degree being paid in the low 40’s. That’s not only unfair, it’s an obscenity.   

In addition to being underpaid, Arizona teachers have to work a lot harder than they should have to. I am monitoring a history class today, and the average class size is 31 students, roughly 5 students too many for the ideal class size.

Inspired by the West Virginia teacher strike in February, teachers in Arizona met in March and formed a new organization called Arizona Educators United. Initially, they simply asked teachers to simply show up for work wearing red, and the RedForEd movement was born.

In March, Arizona Educators United and another group known as the Arizona Education Association sent surveys regarding the desirability of walking out to 57,000 teachers and classified employees. When the final vote tally was counted, 78% of those surveyed approved the walkout.

Since 2008, the Arizona legislature has cut education funding by nearly $1 billion. One result of that austerity is that the state has nearly 2000 unfilled teacher positions after more than half the current school year has passed. During that same time period, the legislature has cut taxes SIGNIFICANTLY. In 2016 alone, state law allowed $13.7 billion in taxes to go uncollected through a litany of exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions or credits. And that number is likely to grow by another $1-to-2 billion once individual income tax deductions are tallied.

According to data compiled by the Arizona Department of Revenue, more than half of all state taxes haven’t been collected for at least the past ten years. Called “tax expenditures,” they amount to $136.5 billion since fiscal year 2007, roughly equivalent to the sum of state budgets spanning the past 15 years.

Because of an amendment to the Arizona Constitution passed by Arizona voters in 1992, any change to the tax code that would result in an increase in revenue, such as removing a carve-out or reducing the expenditure it creates, would require approval by a two-thirds supermajority in each legislative chamber instead of a simple majority.

At a March 28 rally at the Capitol, Arizona Educators United threatened to strike if state leaders didn't address five demands. They are: 20 percent teacher pay raises; competitive pay for support staff; restore state education funding to 2008 levels; create permanent salary structures that include annual raises; and no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average. 

Funding all of the demands laid out by Arizona Educators United would likely cost the state billions of dollars.

Legislative budget analysts have estimated a pay raise for teachers would cost about $29 million per percentage point, bringing a 20 percent raise to about $580 million. 

Restoring funding to 2008 levels would require adding about $1 billion more in state funding to education.

 Arizona spends $924 less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars today than it did in 2008, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Such a steep price tag would likely require raising taxes, putting educators at odds with Gov. Doug Ducey and some Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature, as both have said publicly that they will not raise taxes.

In view of the fact that the state did not collect $13.7 billion in taxes that it should have collected in 2016, the problem in Arizona is not because the state has a shortage of money. It’s because the state’s priorities are completely wrong.                   

As of last Friday, Governor Ducey had not met with representative from either  Arizona Educators United or Arizona Education Association organizers, both of which have requested to negotiate directly with the governor. Ducey, however, met with a group of 13 classroom teachers days before educators announced a walkout date to discuss his so-called #20by2020 proposal.

During the recession, the state legislature stopped increasing education funding tied to inflation, as required by law. In 2010, a coalition of school districts and organizations filed a suit against the state government for cutting inflation adjustments to education during the recession. After 5 long years, governor Ducey signed legislation that would put an additional $3.5   billion into education over the next decade, which ended the lawsuit, even though it provided only 72% of the money that a judge had ordered the state to pay.    

60% of the $3.5 billion would come from drawing on the state land fund. In order to tap into the principal of fund, and not just the interest, it was necessary to amend the state constitution. The state’s solution was Proposition 123, which was passed by a narrow margin (50.92% in favor, and 49.08%  opposed) on May 17, 2016. Due to “clerical error”, thousands of informational packets were not mailed out to the voters. Those who DID receive packets did not receive accurate information, which adversely affected the outcome. Included in list of comments by those who were opposed to the proposition were comments by Jeff DeWitt, who happened to be state treasurer at that point in time. Due to the fact that HE WAS NOT IDENTIFIED AS THE STATE TREASURER on the ballot, his opposition to the proposition was not taken as seriously as it should have been. 

On March 26, 2018, a federal judge in Phoenix ruled that Proposition 123 in unconstitutional, and a violation of federal law. It’s anybody’s guess what will happen now.

There are plenty of people to blame for the ill-advised decision by a variety of states to cut funding for education (how did that turn out for you, Kansas?), but the one individual who is REALLY to blame is a guy named Grover Norquist, who has never held elected office. However, in 1985, he founded an organization called Americans for Tax Reform, allegedly at the request of Ronald Reagan. As a result of that organization, he created “Taxpayer Protection Pledge", a pledge signed by lawmakers who agree to oppose increases in marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses, as well as net reductions or eliminations of deductions and credits without a matching reduced tax rate. Prior to the November 2012 election, the pledge was signed by 95% of all Republican members of Congress and all but one of the candidates running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.                        

In case you have forgotten, the “trickle down economics” of Reagan increased the national debt from $826,519,000,000 on September 30, 1979 to 2,350,276,890,000 on September 39, 1987.    

After Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush completed his first (only one term), he was succeeded by Bill Clinton, who increased taxes. If the Clinton-era tax rates had been left in place, the public debt would have been ELIMINATED by the year 2010.

Unfortunately, George W. Bush got elected in 2000. During his 2 terms, our country started 2 wars, passed two major tax cuts, and passed an unfunded prescription drug program. When he started his first term, the national debt was $5.674 trillion, and by the time Obama was sworn in 2009, the debt had increased to $11.910 trillion. As of today, the national debt is $20.245 trillion, but is expected to rise to $25.020 trillion, by 2021, in large part to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,  which largely benefits corporation and wealthy individuals.

Starting on Thursday of this week, many school districts in Arizona (including TUSD in Tucson) will be closing their schools. In view of the abuse that teachers have suffered in the past, and in view of the reluctance of the legislature to find more funding, I am not optimistic that the problem will be resolved at any time in the near future. 


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