PHOENIX – Gov. Doug Ducey is pushing back against top teachers who said the state’s chief executive essentially played them, the public education community and taxpayers by signing legislation to expand vouchers.
Ducey told reporters Tuesday he had a “very positive meeting’’ Monday with the five of the last six teachers of the year. And the governor said he reaffirmed his commitment to education and teachers.
But the teachers, speaking with reporters following Monday’s sit-down, had a decidedly different take.
Christine Marsh, the 2016 Teacher of the Year who teaches at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, said putting more money into programs that let parents use tax dollars to send children to private and parochial schools amounts to “a nuclear bomb ... dropped on public education.’’
Beth Maloney of Sunset Hills Elementary School in Surprise, who held the title in 2014, was more pointed.
“It’s hard not to feel betrayed when we went out and stumped for (Proposition) 123,’’ she said.
That refers to the 2016 initiative Ducey crafted to settle a multi-year lawsuit by public schools against the state for failing to comply with a voter mandate to adjust aid each year to compensate for inflation.
The $3.5 billion it will make available over the next decade does not fully compensate for the loss. And much of the money for the settlement actually comes from a trust fund already set aside for public education.
But it passed with a bare majority after teacher groups and others agreed to back it to put the litigation behind them.
In a letter signed by all six of the most recent top teachers and delivered to Ducey, they told him they expected something different following last year’s vote.
“We envisioned a collaborative and engaging discussion about solutions to many of the problems that plague Arizona schools as a result of inadequate funding,’’ they wrote. “After you signed the voucher bill on Thursday, we realized that we needed to inform you of not just our individual opinion, but the views of teachers throughout the state.’’
They came away from the meeting disappointed. Maloney said she believes the only reason Proposition 123 passed was because teachers helped convince the public at large.
“And now there is a very real sense of we got played,’’ she said.
“Well, that’s just not true,’’ Ducey shot back when asked about what the teachers said. “I think you’re taking words out of context.’’
Maloney, however, was clear in her views.
“I think the taxpayers of Arizona just got played,’’ she said.
Kingman Unified School District Superintendent Roger Jacks has been keeping a keen eye on the voucher measure.
“All public schools districts are concerned,” he said. “It depends how you interpret both sides of the issue.”
He cited concerns over where the voucher money is going if it’s a good way to spend taxpayer money. He also brought up the issue of providing an education on a level playing fields, including financial accountability and hiring standards.
“Time will tell if it’s going to end up financially hurting the public schools,” Jacks said. “The people in favor say it will be less expensive. There’s just a lot of concerns over how that’s interpreted.”
Ducey acknowledged that the teachers “expect more.’’ But he said that’s in line with his own views.
“I’m going to be working with the legislature so we can get every available dollar into K-12 and into the classroom and into teacher salaries,’’ the governor said. And he said his $114 million proposal for more dollars into public education proves that.
That package, however, includes just $13 million for across-the-board raises for teachers, which comes out to about a 0.4 percent increase.
And Ducey chided those who believe he should not have signed the legislation that expands who is eligible to get a voucher.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I embrace something that is choice and innovative,’’ he said.
The governor pointed out the state had its first vouchers in 2011. Originally reserved for children with special needs, it has since been expanded incrementally to cover foster children, military families, youngsters living on reservations and students in schools rated D and F.
“We’ve seen that this has been better for some kids,’’ Ducey said.
The new law removes any precondition to get a voucher. But it does cap the number of vouchers at about 30,000 out of more than 1.1 million children in public schools, a provision added to secure the necessary votes for approval. But Ducey on Tuesday refused to promise to veto any effort to lift that cap while he is in office, saying only that’s not the intent.
A report by the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee shows the funding picture for public schools has not improved. In 2008 the state put $5.15 billion into K-12. Divided up into the number of children in school, that came out to $4,989 per student.
The estimated figure for this year is $5.07 billion, or $4,528 per student. And that’s not considering inflation. When that is factored in, that’s worth just $3,911 in 2008 dollars.
Ducey sidestepped the question about that trend, commenting that Proposition 123 adds another $300 million a year into K-12 education. But JLBC staffers said the current year state funding figure – the one with total dollars less than 2008 – includes those additional dollars.
Miner reporter Aaron Ricca conributed to this report.