The Arizona Republic
A path toward better teacher pay?
If you’re an Arizona Democrat, you have limited options when you see the Republicans move in your direction on Arizona teacher pay.
You can embrace them wholeheartedly. That’s not going to happen.
You can tell them to kiss off, which Democrats did with Gov. Doug Ducey’s Proposition 123 and his teacher pay raise provoked by Red for Ed protests.
Or you can call their bluff and propose to meet them halfway.
This year the Democrats have chosen their traditional posture.
But it doesn’t look like Republicans are bluffing.
Freshman Republican Matt Gress has introduced House Bill 2800: “Pay Teachers First,” a measure that would raise teacher salaries by $10,000 each by 2025, using increasing general-fund revenues from a growing economy.
“There is significant budget capacity to support and sustain this critical investment in our teaching workforce, without raising taxes,” said Gress in promoting his plan.
By almost all measures, Gress appears sincere.
Education was his ticket out of humble beginnings.
Raised by a single mother in a singlewide trailer in rural Oklahoma, he became the first in his family to earn a college degree.
He paid for his education at the University of Oklahoma by driving school buses and won the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship.
The award rose from the foundation Truman created himself to support “Americans answering the call to serve.”
Answering the call is exactly what Gress did after graduation when he accepted a position with “Teach for America,” helping to deliver high-quality public education to some of America’s most poverty-stricken neighborhood schools.
Eventually Gress earned a Master in Public Administration degree at Syracuse University and became chief of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting. In the Ducey administration, he helped shape teacher pay increases.
In a Republican Party divided by its MAGA and older Reagan roots, Gress leans to the latter, as expressed by his service in a more-moderate Ducey administration and his tribute to the recently deceased Jim Kolbe, a beloved GOP congressman who was both moderate and openly gay.
In that tribute, he wrote, “Jim Kolbe was also a political pioneer, serving as the first openly gay Republican in the U.S. Congress. He paved the way for many in the LGBT community, including me, to run and win without hiding or equivocating.”
Gress is steeped in public education, having served on the Madison Elementary School District Board from 2017 to 2021.
He is undoubtedly sincere about raising teacher pay because he ran on it. It was central to his campaign for the state House representing District 4 in north Phoenix, the affluent Phoenix suburbs populated with more highly educated and less extreme Republicans.
Politico reports that Arizona is one of two states in which “a new governor is faced with a legislature squarely controlled by the other party.” Anyone who wants to get anything done in Arizona politics is going to have reach across the aisle.
Gress ran on that, too, promising that he would “work with both sides – Republicans and Democrats – to find solutions to issues such as reducing the cost of living, increasing teacher pay.”
If you’re a Democrat with a new Democratic governor but minority status in both houses of the Legislature, Gress would seem an excellent partner for building a moderate coalition.
The House Appropriations Committee passed HB 2800 on a mostly partyline vote on Monday, 10-5, but the measure is likely to see greater opposition from Republicans balking at its $700 million price tag, reported Capitol Media Services.
“(Gress) said he wants to make Arizona a mecca for teachers by boosting pay well above the national average, reported the news service. “This would potentially move us into the Top 10 when we get the new rate base,” he said.
But Democrats are cold to his proposal.
The Gress bill does nothing to permanently address the Aggregate Expenditure Limit, the spending cap that nearly forced Arizona school districts to cut nearly $1.5 billion from their combined budgets in the final months of this academic year, Rep. Judy Schwiebert, DPhoenix, said.
The added dollars of the Gress plan would leave schools “in a very precarious position where they’re just at the mercy even more so than they are now of the Legislature every year,” she told Capitol Media Services.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, called the vote “half-baked legislation” and “an exercise in political theater,” reported the news service.
Let’s get something straight: No one is going ramrod their agenda through this Legislature.
If Democrats can work with Republicans to inject significantly more money into Arizona teachers’ salaries, they will have gone a long way to solving a problem they’ve long identified as the cause of teacher flight.
Hopefully, the Democratic reaction so far is itself theater, and somewhere in the recesses of the Capitol complex a new mushroom coalition is beginning to take shape.