In November 2020, Arizonans voted to pass salary increases for teachers and public school personnel. The ballot measure, Proposition 208, called for a 3.5 percent surcharge on taxable incomes over $250,000 for single filers and $500,000 for joint filers, and would have been implemented after 2021. The measure was projected to raise $289 million in the first year and up to $1 billion per year in the following years, but nearly two after its passage and Arizona teachers are still waiting on their raises.
The initiative hit its first wall when Republican legislators appealed Prop 208 citing an amendment to the Arizona Constitution that imposed a spending limit for school districts. The measure was sent to the Arizona Supreme Court. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann led Republican opposition to the measure, urging the justices to strike the measure down.
Despite thousands of Arizona citizens organizing to collect the needed signatures in order to push Prop 208 from petition to the 2020 ballot, and subsequently raising the funds to educate others on the need for its passing, Governor Doug Ducey expanded the state Supreme Court with justices who were against the measure. Five of the seven justices on the state court were heavily vetted by Ducey to uphold the law as written, rather than overturn or improve it.
With the two recent justices appointed by Ducey, the court was swung further right from its previous more moderate stance.
Subsequently, the court found the proposition to be unconstitutional, choosing to remand the decision back to the lower courts, and charging them to determine if the money it would raise would exceed the constitutional spending limit for education. After investigations concluded that the revenue generated from Prop 208 could not be spent without exceeding the constitutional budget, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah effectively signaled the end of the voter-approved measure for good. “(T)he Court is obligated to strike down Proposition 208,” Hannah wrote in a nine-page ruling, citing the guidelines given to him by the Arizona Supreme Court.
Republicans were quick to celebrate the decision. Contrary to their claim that striking down Prop 208 was a win for taxpayers, it is the taxpayers who will be fronting the entire bill for the lawyers who spent two years deliberating against the proposal. At the time of the Supreme Court ruling, schools in Arizona were approaching their spending limits. Democrats in the legislature warned for weeks that schools could be forced to close and soon began calling for a vote to raise the constitutional spending cap. But Republican lawmakers, led by House majority leader Ben Toma, were already positioned to oppose raising the spending cap. Against any measure aimed at taxing the wealthy, they cautiously sidestepped raising the cap before the court ruling on Proposition 208 so as not to provide alternate lifelines for further tax measures. Roopali Desai, an attorney representing the group that backed Proposition 208, stated before the Supreme Court’s filing that any delay would not affect this year’s spending cap.
In the background of this political back and forth, the state is already seeing a mass exodus of teachers from the classrooms. Although campaigns like the 2018 teacher strike resulted in educators receiving a 20 percent pay raise, schools are still struggling, and Arizona teacher pay is still ranked near the bottom of American states. Arizona schools remain among the lowest-funded in the nation, leading to a developing crisis of teachers leaving the trade.