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Advocates In Arizona Push For Tax On Wealthy To Benefit Education

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Arizona, a state education group estimates that almost 1 in 4 public school teaching jobs there are vacant, and thousands of working teachers aren't properly certified. The state's governor and legislature say they're trying to fix it. Teachers say they're not doing enough. Katie Campbell from member station KJZZ has the story.

KATIE CAMPBELL, BYLINE: Christine Hollingsworth is the principal at Acacia Elementary School in Phoenix. She says trying to hire teachers now is a lot different than when she started 17 years ago.

CHRISTINE HOLLINGSWORTH: When I wanted to hire a teacher, I could go on to our job site and look for, say, a first grade teacher and have 200 names pop up. Now I'm lucky if I have five pop up.

CAMPBELL: High school teacher Joe Thomas says Arizona's problem is clear.

JOE THOMAS: We do not have competitive salaries. We cannot keep our classrooms with a classroom teacher in them.

CAMPBELL: Thomas is president of the state's largest teachers union and in 2018 marched with tens of thousands in support of a statewide teacher strike sparked in part because of low pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Funding.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

CAMPBELL: Response from elected leaders, Thomas says, hasn't been enough.

THOMAS: And the legislature and the governor just simply do a little bit on the margin, but as long as we have 1,800 classrooms without a certified, qualified teacher, we know that there's still more work to be done.

CAMPBELL: Arizona has been in the bottom tier among states for median teacher pay since at least 2016. That makes neighboring states like California, New Mexico and Utah look awfully attractive, says Anabel Aportela, a researcher with the Arizona School Boards Association.

ANABEL APORTELA: It's relatively easy for teachers to simply move over a state and get much higher pay. So we're kind of a perfect storm.

CAMPBELL: Following the 2018 teacher strike, Arizona's Republican governor, Doug Ducey, promised to increase teacher pay. His budget proposal this year includes restoring money taken from schools in years past. And he wants to increase funding for college for future teachers. In his State of the State address this year, Ducey said progress is being made.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DUCEY: Arizona has experienced the second-highest growth in new teachers enrolling in teacher preparation programs.

CAMPBELL: The governor's critics in education aren't impressed and are appealing to voters directly. For the second time since 2018, they're pushing a ballot measure to raise taxes on the wealthiest Arizonans. They say it would generate about $940 million a year. Teachers union president Joe Thomas.

THOMAS: And all of the plans and the ideas that we see that come out of the legislature are always a little bit too little and a little bit too late.

CAMPBELL: The tax measures ballot language was disqualified in 2018, and it remains to be seen if its backers this year can get enough signatures to put it in front of voters in November. If they do, they can expect opposition from Republicans, including Governor Ducey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUCEY: No new taxes - not this session, not next session, not here in this chamber, not at the ballot box, not on my watch.

CAMPBELL: For NPR News, I'm Katie Campbell in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEAN MAGRAW'S "SEVENTH ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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