Teachers fight budget
Arizona Republic
May. 21, 2006

About 50 teachers and school staff gathered outside the Capitol last week to let lawmakers know what they think of their proposed funding plan for public education. "Stack 'em high, teach 'em cheap" read one sign.

"No kindergartener left behind," read another.

The state's budget is still being negotiated with wide variations in the education funding called for by Gov. Janet Napolitano and the plan proposed by lawmakers. One who attended the rally was Mindy Whalen, who teaches in the Washington Elementary School District, has 15 years of experience, and earns $42,405. She is president-elect of the district's teachers union and teaches reading to eighth-grade students at Palo Verde Middle School in Phoenix. Whalen offered her thoughts on the legislative proposal and education funding in Arizona to reporter Carrie Watters.

Question: What does the Legislature's proposal mean to you?

Answer: The Washington Elementary School District has offered everyone a flat $500 raise. This will not cover the 1.7 percent increase we must pay to state retirement. However, it doesn't end there. The district is requiring a $500 share-of-cost for maintaining a health plan that is now free, while doubling the annual deductible on another.

Now, they will tell you they are giving us a $3,100 package. It sounds good, but the amount includes voter-approved compensation Proposition 301 monies.
Voters never intended these monies to be used as a leveraging piece in a district-negotiated package. It's smoke-and-mirrors accounting.

Q: What is your take on the Legislature's proposed education budget?

A: The proposal appropriates $105 million, but specifies it to only go to the kindergarten through third-grade classes. Thus, Grades 4-12 will receive no new funding. Excluding the high school districts will impact an estimated 4,000 teachers and 90,000 students.

Additionally, this budget does not fund the $45 million necessary to offset the increased cost for employee retirement, nor does it provide any funding to increase teacher salaries.

There is irony in a budget that gives away an additional $15 million in corporate tax credits and vouchers to private schools in the name of choice and at the same time requires public schools to choose which program won't be funded because there is not adequate funds available.

Q: What message do you want to send lawmakers?

A: Stop playing politics with the education of our children. We want to see a firm commitment to public education in this state. We want to see funding every year that will bring Arizona from the bottom to the top. We may never again have a surplus available that will allow us to truly invest in the education of our children. Now is the time.

We are waiting for a budget that responds to the needs of parents, children and school employees. We are waiting for a budget that raises the minimum salary for teachers and school employees, holds school employees harmless for rising retirement costs, funds full-day kindergarten, and provides new money for all grades, not just kindergarten through third.

Q: Teachers held signs at the rally: "Working harder. Getting poorer." Why are teachers working harder?

A: Teachers are doing more assessments with their students, which require hours of computer data entry. Also, they are expected to adopt new curriculum in order to stay up with the latest educational methods. These important tools are necessary, but time-consuming.

Additionally, educational requirements contained in the No Child Left Behind Act offer no money for the continuing education it requires. Teachers are forced to take additional tests and classes just to keep their existing job.
And how do they pay for it? Out of their own pockets.

The rising influx of English language learners also adds to the workload.
These students require special attention and teaching methods. The already-high class sizes filled with students of all ability levels makes the job even more challenging.

The proposed budget does not address class size or English language learners.

Q: Why is education funding so frequently the stumbling block in the state budget?

A: Unfortunately, legislative leadership has made public education a partisan issue. The leadership seems to be more invested in dismantling the public education system than enriching and enhancing it. Annually, they are throwing more and more money towards private and charter school funding and less and less to public-education enrichment. Elected officials, who advocate for a strong, constitutionally guaranteed education system find themselves at odds with these tactics. And so, we have the stumbling block.

Here's the dilemma for school districts: They can't be sure of their funding levels until the Legislature adopts a budget. They want to get teacher contracts out in a timely manner in order to recruit new teachers to their districts and retain the ones they have. So they put contracts out based on their best estimate. Then some districts allow for contingency language in their contracts and others don't. If additional money came in from the state that was intended for an increase in the base salary, without contingency language, they couldn't pay it out without asking teachers to do additional work. Then it becomes a gift of public funds issue. This is an irresponsible way of doing business; there is no uniformity of teacher contracts.

Q: A modest salary has long been part and parcel of being a teacher. Why are Arizona teachers upset?

A: A decision to teach in Arizona is not about a willingness to accept a modest income. It's about legislative leadership refusing to fund education at levels that allow you to maintain a modest income. Arizona pays its teachers $5,000 below the national average. Arizona has the second-largest classroom sizes in the nation. Arizona is 50th in per-pupil spending. This isn't about modesty. It's downright embarrassing.