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8:17 AM Thu, Dec. 13th

Lawmakers could help teachers pay for classroom supplies

Rep. Kristen Engel sponsored legislation that is designed to help teachers pay for classroom expenses. (Capitol Media Services File Photo)

Rep. Kristen Engel sponsored legislation that is designed to help teachers pay for classroom expenses. (Capitol Media Services File Photo)

PHOENIX – Two first-term Southern Arizona lawmakers have less than two weeks to salvage legislation designed to help teachers pay for classroom supplies.

The legislation sponsored by Reps. Todd Clodfelter and Kirsten Engel would have provided both cash from the state treasury as well as a dollar tax credit for out-of-pocket expenses. The two, who normally would be political opponents – he’s a Republican and she’s a Democrat from the same Tucson legislative district – figured that combining the ideas would give it the best chance of passage.

But their colleagues on both sides of the aisle felt otherwise, voting 23-31 against the measure earlier this week.

That vote isn’t the last word. Using a procedural maneuver, Clodfelter got a majority of lawmakers to grant Engel and him a second chance.

But the clock is running: Their right for a new vote self-destructs on March 8.

Central to the issue is the fairly widely held belief that many teachers use their own funds for supplies that their schools don’t provide, whether it’s sheet music, cardboard for displays or even just crayons.

Clodfelter suggested a tax credit, essentially giving teachers one dollar off what they owe the state in income taxes for each dollar spent, up to $400. That cleared two committees with Democrats opposed.

Engel, for her part, proposed having the state cough up $150 in cash per teacher next school year, with automatic increases for the next two years bringing it up to

$250. She managed to get the votes in the the House Education Committee but, with the $14.5 million price tag when fully implemented, could not get the measure heard in the Appropriations Committee.

So the pair opted to combine forces when Clodfelter’s measure went to the full House.

The final version, put on HB 2377, cut the outright cash to $8.7 million – limiting it to $150 per teacher – and capped the tax credit at $150.

In essence, the teachers would use the state funds first. Then, if their expenses exceeded that, they could accumulate the receipts and use them to reduce their state income tax obligation by another $150.

“I understand the pain felt by teachers providing products and material for their own classroom,’’ Clodfelter told colleagues when the measure came up for a vote on Thursday. “The teachers deserve more than they get.’’

He also reminded his Republican colleagues that they repeated discuss among themselves ways to help Arizona teachers who, according to multiple reports, are at or near the bottom in pay nationwide.

“This is an opportunity to give the teachers money back that they’re already spending and then give them an opportunity to get more back from the tax return,’’ Clodfelter said.

The now-combined measure drew 14 “no’’ votes from Republicans, including House Speaker J.D. Mesnard. But what proved more surprising was that 16 of the 25 Democrats in the House also rejected the idea.

Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, called it “commendable’’ that there is an effort to help teachers. But she called what’s in the legislation “an insult.’’

“Teachers spend way more than $150, $300 on their classroom just so they can survive in their classroom and show value to their students and provide for their students,’’ she said. “This is a drop in the bucket.’’

Potentially more significant, Peten said she believes that passing this measure actually undermines arguments that the state needs to put real money into education.

“We do not need crumbs thrown at us,’’ she said.

“After these crumbs are thrown at you, someone will say, ‘We gave you something, we gave you a little help,’” Peten continued. “But it’s not enough to do anything.’’

The opposition from her own party left Engel scrambling.

“The intent of this was never to throw crumbs at our schools,’’ she said. “It was the opposite: to support our teachers and show them that we also thought that it was just embarrassing that they were spending so much money on teacher school supplies without support from the state.’’

The arguments proved fruitless at bringing over more Democrat votes – she needed at least seven to push the measure over the line.