Walkouts by Teachers Spread to Arizona and Colorado

The Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto identifies the teacher pay gap in all the states: the difference between average salaries for schoolteachers and for other college graduates. Arizona and Colorado, where teachers walked out last Thursday and Friday, represent the two states where the gap is widest among all the fifty states.  In Arizona, public school teachers make only 62.8 percent and in Colorado 64.5 percent of the salaries of other college graduates. And in both states the cost of living is quickly rising.

Surely their paltry wages are part of the reason school teachers in these states have mounted major protests at their state capitols, but conditions in the schools where they teach are the other reason.

Here are some realities in Arizona, where teachers continued their strike yesterday. The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit reports: “When adjusted for inflation, Arizona cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent between 2008 and 2015, more than any other state.  That has led to relatively low teacher salaries, crumbling school buildings, and the elimination of free full-day kindergarten in some districts… Low teacher pay has contributed to teacher shortages in Arizona. Some districts, unable to find qualified teaching candidates, have turned to emergency long-term substitutes who are required to hold only a high school diploma.”

Writing for Education Week, Daarel Burnete II adds: “Arizona is one of seven states that, in response to voter demands, has cut income taxes in the last decade, a revenue source schools rely on heavily. In 2016 alone, the state allowed $13.7 billion to go uncollected through a series of income, sales, and other tax exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions, or credits, according to the state’s department of revenue.  At the same time, Arizona has made among the most dramatic budget cuts in the nation to its schools, totaling 14 percent in the last decade alone… The paradox is that Arizona’s economy is in its best condition in years.  Its unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent, and the state’s 100 largest corporations added more than 20,000 jobs last year alone.”

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has promised teachers a 20 percent raise over five years and also promised to do it without a tax increase.  Striking teachers do not believe his plan will produce the raises he has promised. Neither do they believe he will be able significantly to increase overall school funding.  NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg describes what she found when she visited schools in Arizona last week: “I visited a K-8 school in the scrublands of South Phoenix, a flat, dusty, wide-open area that’s only a 15-minute drive from downtown but feels much farther.  (The principal asked me not to identify it, or him, for fear that his school would suffer administrative reprisals for letting a journalist in.)  The science teacher told me her classes have 30-36 students each.  Aside from desks, she’d either bought most of what was in her classroom, or had it donated—not just books, but also chairs and even a water dispenser, which the class needed during the seven months when the school’s drinking fountains were broken… The teacher… was sad and anxious about the walkout, but had voted for it out of desperation. ‘I’m at a breaking point,’ she told me. ‘We don’t have the resources. I’m spending more and more money out of my own pocket, and I can’t have the impact that I want to have with the way things are now. Something needs to happen.'”

Colorado’s capacity to fund its schools is complicated by an American Legislative Exchange Council backed Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a TABOR, adopted into Colorado’s state constitution in 1992. Here is a description about how Colorado’s TABOR affects school funding: “(W)hat it basically means is that lawmakers can’t raise your taxes without making you vote on it first. And it also limits how much of a ‘raise,’ so to speak, that the state gets each year. And, if the state happens to generate too much money, it can’t keep it. Instead, this goes back to taxpayers.”  TABOR and other tax freezes and limitations in Colorado mean that state’s allocation for school districts has declined steadily.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains further that Colorado is the only state that has embedded a TABOR into its constitution despite attempts in other states, where voters have defeated passage of this kind of restrictive policy that is being promoted by far-right anti-tax interests. More than a decade after the TABOR was passed, Colorado’s revenue collapsed so completely that: “In 2005, Colorado voters approved a measure to suspend TABOR’s formula for five years to allow the state to rebuild its public services. Unfortunately, the suspension did not last long enough for the state to recover fully from the period that TABOR was in effect, and the Great Recession further undermined that effort.  TABOR continues to cause ongoing fiscal headaches for Colorado even as the economy improves.”

The state’s school funding morass due to the TABOR means that Colorado teachers’ purpose in rallying is a little different than in Arizona.  The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Livingston reports: “Meanwhile, in Colorado, an upcoming ballot measure in November could tip the scales in the students’ favor. The ‘Great Schools, Thriving Communities’ measure would increase tax rates for corporations and for people who make more than $150,000 annually. The money would be used to increase base funding for all students, provide full-day kindergarten and increase funding from the state to local districts for English language classes and special education.”

Unfortunately the prospects for passage of the ballot initiative are unsure: The Post‘s Moriah Balingit summarizes the tenuous financial situation faced by school teachers in TABOR-constrained Colorado: “The stagnant salaries, combined with skyrocketing housing prices in the booming state, have made life untenable for many educators. The state’s constitution gives only voters the authority to raise taxes, and they have twice rejected such proposals.”

Teachers in Arizona and Colorado have now joined their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to expose what it means for children and their teachers when far-right governments impose tax freezes and slash taxes.  As NY Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman explained very plainly last week: “Education accounts for more than half of the state and local (public) work force….  What tax cuts do.. is sharply reduce revenue, wreaking havoc with state finances. For a great majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets. That means that when tax receipts plunge, the conservatives running many states can’t do what Trump and his allies in Congress are doing at the federal level—simply let the budget deficit balloon.  Instead they have to cut spending. And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.”