Arizona Republican lawmakers announced a plan to increase teacher pay in K-12 public schools – they’re calling it the “Teacher Pay Fund.”

LEARN MORE: Here’s how Arizona teachers are adapting — not attacking — AI

“This session the Republican-led Legislature will be introducing legislation to increase teacher pay by 7% or about $4,000,” said Senate President Warren Petersen at a news conference Monday. “The average teacher in Arizona makes $56,000 a year. Our plan will increase the average teacher pay to over $60,000 per year.”

Petersen said the land trust endowment, which is a long-term savings account that helps fund education, would pay for the plan.

He said Arizona teachers will be making above the national average, and starting teachers would be paid well above the national average if the plan is implemented.

According to the National Education Association, Arizona’s average teacher salary ranks 32nd in the nation, and per student spending ranks 49th in the nation.

The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association said its survey of more than 130 school districts and charter schools this fall showed that of the 7,518.3 open teacher positions at the beginning of the school year, 2,229.7 were still unfilled as of September, or 29.7%. Advocates blame the vacancies, in part, on Arizona teacher salaries.

“Arizona has had a significant teacher shortage for many years,” said Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona. “It’s worsening primarily because of two factors: One of them is teacher pay, which is abysmally low, and the other is really poor working conditions. What I mean by that is a lack of resources and lack of other employee support.”

Julie Garcia, who has been teaching kindergarten for 12 years, supports the proposal.

“The teacher pay has been my biggest struggle in recent months, especially during this inflation. There are more times than I would like to admit that my family has had to wait a few days to get groceries or gas or have to use the dreaded credit card,” Garcia said at the Monday news conference. “This is alarming for me and my family. Many teachers have second or third jobs and pick up many odd jobs to get by.”

According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, 15.8% of public school teachers had other jobs outside the system during the 2020-2021 school year. The average amount earned from other jobs was $6,100. The Teacher Pay Fund proposal will help bridge that gap, Republicans say.

“What I really like about this proposal is it puts 100% of every dollar into the classroom. Arizonans want teachers to be paid more. Arizonans want more dollars to go into the classroom,” said Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix. “It’s time to do the right thing to bypass administration and the education unions and get our teachers the pay raise they deserve.”

House Democratic Whip Nancy Gutierrez, who is also a public school teacher, said the Democrats are ready to discuss any realistic proposal to raise teacher pay, but the devil is always in the details.

“It was a nice change to see Republicans speaking respectfully of public school teachers, but the reality is it would be much easier to raise educator pay if their universal voucher scheme to subsidize private schools hadn’t put our budget $400 million out of balance before we even start our next session,” Gutierrez said in a statement.

Finance Advisory Committee report released in October indicated the projected shortfall is due in part to a drop in individual income tax collections. Democrats highlight universal school vouchers and a flat tax as causes of the shortfall.

The Arizona Education Association is a professional association and a labor union advocating on behalf of students, staff and teachers in Arizona. The association supports pay raises for teachers but says the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“Just like classroom teachers, our education support professionals are seriously underpaid, leading to shortages that impact our students every day,” Arizona Education Association President Marisol Garcia said in a statement. “The people who open our schools in the morning, and who close our schools each night, deserve to be included in any proposed raise.”

Lewis of Save our Schools Arizona emphasized a lot of schools don’t have sufficient numbers of counselors, librarians or nurses, and all of that work falls on the classroom teacher.

“If we raise just teacher pay and not the pay of other professionals and not more resources for kids and we are not taking care of school facilities … everything else will crumble around us,” Lewis said.