Arizona teachers could receive $150 to purchase school supplies next year under a proposal from a Democratic state legislator.
House Bill 2373 would give up-front money to teachers in state-funded district and charter schools. Designed as a pilot program, the bill would gradually phase in the money for supplies. Each teacher would receive $150 in fiscal year 2019, followed by $200 and $250 in subsequent years. The proposal is sponsored by Representative Kirsten Engel, a Democrat from Tucson’s District 10.
“This bill is in response to what we all know is happening,” Engel told the House Education Committee on Monday. “Just about every classroom teacher is digging into his or her own pockets, sometimes digging very deeply, in order to pay for supplies for their classroom.”
The bill passed the House Education Committee with a vote of 6-3. It now needs the approval of the Appropriations Committee before it makes it to the floor. If successful, the measure will appropriate $8.7 million from the general fund in 2019.
The teachers would need to keep receipts and return unspent money at the conclusion of the year. Certified teachers would be eligible to receive the money, possibly in the form of a debit card, but media specialists or school counselors would not.
Engel said that one of her constituents, a teacher who works for a charter school, brought the idea for this bill to her. The issue of classroom supplies has struck a chord, Engel said. Arizona ranks near the bottom in teacher pay and our teachers earn less than their peers in neighboring states. It adds up to an especially painful squeeze when teachers have to purchase classroom supplies out of their own salary to make sure students have what they need.
“We have classroom teachers all over this state that are just struggling with how to make sure that they have enough of the things that they need: the pencils, the paper, the posterboard, the glue, the construction paper, and all the other things,” Engel said. “And very frequently, they’re diving into their own pockets to pay for it.”
Based on unofficial constituent surveys, Engel said that teachers have told her they spend between $400 and $1,000 a year on classroom supplies.
During the committee hearing, Representative Becky Nutt was skeptical at first. The Republican asked Engel if she had considered adding the money to a teacher’s salary instead.
Engel responded that increasing teacher pay would add tax liability, and gets away from the purpose of the bill. Her bill ensures that “the state’s money was paying up front for those classroom supplies,” Engel said.
Surprisingly, Republicans on the committee supported the proposal. Nutt cast a yes vote, as did Doug Coleman, a teacher in Apache Junction who represents District 16.
“Just for supplies, I think this isn’t a bad way to go,” Coleman said during the hearing. “If you put it in teacher salary — and believe me, I believe our teachers aren’t being paid enough — but if you put it in salary, then they do take out taxes, retirement. That comes out of it, and so it reduces the amount of supplies that you’d be able to buy.”
Engel's idea isn't the only school-supplies bill floating around the Legislature. In an interesting case of dueling proposals, during the same hearing that Engel’s bill passed, the committee heard an alternative bill that would give a tax credit to teachers who purchase classroom supplies.
Representative Todd Clodfelter, Republican of District 10, sponsored HB 2377, which establishes a tax credit for teachers who purchase supplies during the school year. “There is concern, understandably, that teachers would rather have a raise to spend more money,” Clodfelter told the committee, but raised the same concerns about tax deductions.
“If they get a raise, they have to pay taxes on it. In this case, they can deduct the expenses up to $400,” Clodfelter said.
However, Stephanie Parra, a lobbyist with the Arizona Education Association, said that her organization opposes Clodfelter’s bill. Arizona needs to address the broader issue of underfunded schools, she said, making the case that we think it’s okay for teachers to pay for classroom supplies out of their own pocket only because of this messed-up education environment.
“Our schools should be funded adequately so that our school employees, certified and classified employees, are not having to supplement resources to our schools,” Parra said.
An Arizona initiative pushing for increased school funding also came out against Clodfelter's idea.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokesperson for Save Our Schools – Arizona said in an email that the organization supports Engel's bill, not Clodfelter's.
"The root of the problem in Arizona's education funding crisis is that the budget is too small," Penich-Thacker wrote. "HB 2377 would exacerbate that problem adding insult to injury by then putting the burden right back on teachers to stock their own classrooms with their own money."
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For his part, Clodfelter defended his proposal as a step in the right direction where other efforts to fund schools haven’t succeeded.
“I realize that this is not an end-all, and certainly we’d like to pay our teachers more, but historically, we’re not doing that very well,” Clodfelter said. “So this basically creates an opportunity for them to at least recover some money.”
Clodfelter’s bill ultimately passed, 6-3. But Nutt was apparently unimpressed with the Arizona Education Association's plea to address the underlying cause of the school supplies problem. The legislator took a potshot at the association before voting yes on the tax credit bill.
“I think it’s a little disingenuous for the Arizona Education Association to seemingly penalize teachers to make a point,” Nutt said.