This sounds kind of odd, but Arizona’s school districts learned Wednesday they can legally spend an additional $100 million in state funds to raise the salaries of teachers, classroom aides and other employees they consider important to a child’s education.
The Legislature agreed this year to spend this much beyond voter-approved formula increases related to student population growth. Lawmakers from both parties recognized that many school districts have been able to only match rising costs for employee health insurance and pension premiums, which means thousands of teachers have had no additional money added to their paychecks as their own bills climb higher each year. The state was awash in unexpected tax revenues, and lawmakers knew we could afford to direct a sizeable portion toward keeping quality teachers and recruiting new ones.
But the legislative session went on so long this year that school districts already had approved new teacher contracts when the state budget was adopted in June. So one school district asked whether passing out the $100 million would be a “gift” or “extra compensation” from state government that is forbidden by the state constitution.
Attorney General Terry Goddard sought to put that concern to rest with a formal legal opinion that tells school districts to go ahead and spend the money. His office had to offer some creative reasoning, as two separate legal opinions from more than 20 years ago say a school district can’t give a teacher more money after signing an annual contract. Goddard basically concluded the Legislature had a good reason to approve additional funds — improving public education — so the appropriation serves a public purpose instead of being an illegal gift.
The additional money would provide raises of about $1,818 if divided equally among the state’s 55,000 district and charter school teachers. But the Legislature didn’t mandate an equal split of the wealth, as requested by Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction.
Instead, districts and charter schools have the freedom to hand out the money as works best for them. We hope school boards and administrators will focus on merit pay raises as an encouragement to those teachers who work the hardest and who are doing the best to deliver a quality education to every child. Those are the educators who have really earned the right to take home more of our tax dollars.