Arizona teachers’ jobs are at the mercy of political consensus

More than 190 state superintendents plead for a special session to lift the state's arbitrary spending cap, which is close to eliminating more than $1.3 billion in approved funding.

A constitutionally mandated school spending limit that’s more than 40 years old is putting Arizona’s K-12 schools at risk of losing more than $1.3 billion in approved funding.

The spending cap, known as the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL), tells AZ schools how much they’re allowed to spend each year, and Democrats are pleading for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to lift that cap for a second time this year.

“They are already very worried about this issue, and they are worried about whether or not they can spend the money that has been allocated to them by the legislature,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman at a press conference.

However, an override on the spending cap rests in the balance of political consensus between Democrats and Republicans. If the votes are there, according to Ducey’s spokesman C.J. Karamargin, state legislation would consider calling a special session ahead of the legislature’s scheduled return to work in January 2023.

For Arizona’s teachers, it’s a much more serious situation. Hoffman points out that schools will be forced to begin layoffs and implement larger classroom sizes. Students are already struggling to recover from the pandemic, according to a report from the Helios Education Foundation, the Arizona State Board of Education and the Arizona Department of Education. Most notably, the report reveals an 11% drop in math proficiency across all grade levels.

Additionally, data from the Economic Policy Institute shows that teachers are significantly underpaid, with Arizona teachers experiencing a 32% wage penalty in 2021 compared to workers with a college degree in other fields. That makes it the fourth-largest teacher pay gap in the country.

Teachers and other school staff don’t need anything else on their plate, notes Hoffman. “In a school year where safety and the mental health resources are more important than ever, positions like school counselors, behavior coaches, nurses and other critical school safety positions are also at risk,” she said.

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More than 190 state superintendents across political ideologies submitted a letter addressed to Gov. Ducey desperately asking for a special session to lift the spending cap. In it, they addressed specific areas that the $1.3 billion in funding would support:

  • “Across the state, many certified teachers received significant pay raises. This has resulted in many districts starting and average salaries becoming competitive.”
  • “In anticipation of the minimum wage increase, many school districts will use these funds to increase staff pay at minimum to comply with the legally required increase.”
  • “Dedicated funding for the completion of capital projects that will address district infrastructure, including broadband.”
  • “Continued work to increase school safety through capital projects and additional SROs.”

“The current estimated impact to the school districts if an AEL fix is not enacted would be a budgetary cut in excess of $1.3 billion,” the letter reads. “As some of the largest employers in our respective communities these cuts would devastate our local economies and the families in our communities, not to mention the aggregate effect on the state economy.”

According to state law, a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House will override the cap for one year. This has been done on only three separate occasions: Once in 2002, in 2008 and in February of this year. February’s vote lifted the cap for the 2022 fiscal year, which ended in June.

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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